Category Archives: Sermons

From Deference to Authority

By Rachel King, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Within the three short verses of my Torah portion, Exodus Chapter 1, Verses 15 through 17, lies what has to be one of the major acts of defiance in Torah. Afraid of the Israelites, who have been growing in number and strength, Pharaoh decrees that all Israelite boys should be killed at birth. As my portion tells us, the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, “fearing God … did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” This act of defiance enables the Israelites to continue their line—which as we know, goes on to endure across borders and millennia.

Torah commentators have debated whether the “Hebrew midwives” were Israelites themselves, or perhaps Egyptians assigned to deliver Israelite babies. The text is unclear. If they were Egyptians, the midwives were especially insubordinate to their ruler. Whether Egyptian or Israelite, we read about two subservient women whose act of civil disobedience leads to what we understand as a critical outcome: the birth of Moses. The women ignore the rule of the land in favor of the rule of a higher authority: they know that God’s spiritual and moral code does not include killing babies. The text doesn’t give us any detail about what consequences the midwives would have faced by defying Pharaoh. Nonetheless, we can assume that this punitive and angry ruler would be prepared to hand out terrible, perhaps even fatal punishment for their disobedience. Despite this, Shifrah and Puah make the only choice that seems right to them, the moral imperative of which is far greater to them than any personal consequences they might face.

This story brings to mind several historical events in our lifetime. From Martin Luther King, Jr., to Vietnam draft dodgers, to Edward Snowden, there are plenty of examples of individuals who have followed their consciences instead of the law of the land — and who have suffered the consequences. I am certainly interested in the political and historical implications of such acts. Yet, as a woman and as a Jew—and on the occasion of becoming a bat mitzvah—I am more interested in exploring the deep personal resonance this snippet of Torah has for me. For I have spent much of my life being deferential, a “pleaser” – to my parents, my teachers, my bosses, my friends, and my partners. It has only been recently—as l have gotten older, and as life has thrown significant challenges at me—that I’ve begun to evaluate my choices not based simply on following the rules and making others happy, but based instead on my own sense of what is right. Choosing Judaism as an adult was a conscious act of aligning my values and my sense of justice with tikkun olam, and embracing a powerful code by which I choose to live. Simultaneously, having weathered some difficult situations and people over the past decade, I have reached a place in my life where I am no longer willing to just go along with decisions and actions I don’t believe in. This is why I can especially appreciate that Shifrah and Puah stand up to a powerful leader, defy a social and civil code they think is wrong, and choose to obey a higher authority.

In our Torah reading, that higher authority is, of course, God. But I believe that the midwives are also answering to themselves. Shifrah and Puah know they will disappoint not only God but themselves if they follow Pharaoh’s decree to take innocent lives. They are willing to suffer Pharaoh’s punishment as long as they don’t have to face God—or their own consciences—in the final reckoning. This is the heart of the Torah passage for me. The more experienced and the wiser I get, the more I believe in my own authority. I don’t blindly follow others’ rules anymore; rather, I evaluate them for their sense and their moral value. I decide whether I can live with them according to my own belief system—my own authority. I am willing to say “no.” I will accept any practical consequences, as long as my choices and actions don’t lead to two outcomes I can’t accept: harm to others, and disappointment in myself.

There is much to learn from these brave biblical women. While listening to my own authority certainly won’t result in building a nation, I can only hope that the decisions and actions I embrace throughout the rest of my life have a similarly positive, lasting impact—on my children and on my legacy.

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Seeing the Other

By Shona Keir, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Exodus begins with a list of the twelve sons of Israel who, along with their families, immigrated to Egypt.  At first, the community had a small population of seventy but they started thriving in their new environment, and the community grew.

Then a new king, Pharaoh, came into power.  Pharaoh, having no prior personal connection to Joseph or the Israelites, was fearful and suspicious of the Israelites’ ever-growing community.  Without the personal connection, he did not see them as human, so he set forth a mandate that subjected the Israelites to hard labor and essentially turned the entire community into slaves.  In letting his fear guide his actions, he quickly defined the Israelite community, a community he knew nothing about, as the “Other”.  With the mandate, he gave his subjects the right to see them as the “Other” as well.

Despite oppression and brutal forced labor, the Israelite community continued to thrive and grow.  Pharaoh amped up his fear level again, and set another mandate.  He instructed the two Hebrew midwives to kill all male Hebrew newborns.  The midwives believed that G-d would not want them to kill the babies, so they did not follow Pharaoh’s decree.  Pharaoh grew upset with the midwives, and declared all male newborns, Hebrew or Egyptian, be thrown into the Nile river.  His fear and hatred of the “Other” was so destructive that he was ready to sacrifice the future of his own community in order to hurt the Israelites.

In the meantime, a Levite husband and wife conceived a child.  When the wife gave birth, she saw she had delivered a beautiful baby boy.  She feared for the baby’s life so she hid him for three months, until it was no longer possible to keep him a secret.

She had to do something to give this baby a chance at life, so she waterproofed a basket and put the baby boy inside.  She went down to the river Nile, and floated the basket among the reeds.  All along, her daughter had been watching what was happening, and now she watched the basket as it floated among the reeds.

King Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to bathe.  She spotted the basket and directed one of her slaves to get it for her.  When she opened the basket, the baby started crying.  She realized it must have been the son of a Hebrew woman and took pity on the baby.  The baby’s sister, still watching, got up the nerve to ask Pharaoh’s daughter if she would like her to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child.  Pharaoh’s daughter said yes, and unbeknownst to Pharaoh’s daughter, the baby’s sister brought back their mother as the wet nurse.  The mother was able to be with her son until he reached the next stage of his life, at which point, she returned him to Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him and named him Moses.

The parasha continues on, but what seemed interesting about this passage is how familiar the story of labeling an entire group of people as bad and then degrading them is, thousands of years later. It is an example of how easily an entire community can be dehumanized strictly based on lack of personal connection, lack of knowledge and fear of the unknown.  What is encouraging is that there always tend to be a few people willing to go against the grain to do what seems fair and just, despite pressure to go along with acts of inhumanity.

Several woman played major roles in creating the ability for Moses to grow up safely within the Egyptian community.  If the Egyptian community had known who he really was, they probably would have killed him.  The common thread in this passage is that each of the three women developed a personal connection with the baby, which greatly improved his chances of surviving.  His mother had the connection of his birth and of taking care of him for three months.  His sister had a connection with him as her baby brother, and she also she had her own connection with her mother.  She witnessed the hard choice her mother made in order to try to save her brother’s life.  That bravery may have encouraged her own act of courage when talking to Pharaoh’s daughter about getting a wet nurse.

It was particularly interesting to look at the connection between Pharaoh’s daughter and the baby.  Being the King’s daughter, she must have known about the mandate to drown all newborn male babies.  Yet, when she saw the baby and heard him crying, he became human to her. She decided to help him.  As both the King’s daughter and a royal subject, she must have realized how much trouble she would be in if she disobeyed his decree and was caught.  The connection she made with the baby was more powerful than the mandate of her father.

Degradation of entire communities due to fear and then hatred has occurred throughout world history.  Certainly, people of our faith are not strangers to the experience of being identified as the “Other”.  Throughout out our history, it has left devastating consequences.  The most recent large-scale instance was the Holocaust, which ended only seventy-five years ago.  In some places today, we are still considered as the “Other”, and there are still people who would prefer we didn’t exist.

This passage showed that the importance of personal connection with each other should not be minimized.  It is too easy to write an entire group of people off due to fear of the unfamiliar or discomfort.  We are less likely to be cruel and inhuman when we are able to find a way to identify with people and their particular situations, even if their circumstances are not as recognizable to us.  It is important to remain diligent in the act of seeing the humanity in each situation to which we are exposed.

The passage also provides some reassurance that there will always be people who are willing to stand up against an inhumane situation, despite the resistance and despite the consequences.  World history has shown this to be the case as well.  In some of the most challenging circumstances, there are always news clips about a person or a group of people who put their safety, and sometimes their lives, on the line in order to help other people.   Those who perform such brave acts show inherent good that I believe is in most of humanity.  Going forward in life, I hope to be more consistently conscientious in my role as a member of society, recognizing that personal connection provides an enormous benefit to the cohesiveness of societal living.

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Pharaoh Today

Melanie Henriques, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Shabbat Shalom — How privileged we are to be able to greet one another with these words without fear of persecution.

In today’s portion, Shemot, there is a new Pharaoh ruling Egypt.  He feared that the Israelites were too numerous and could side with an enemy and overpower the Egyptians.  Pharaoh  attempted to suppress the spirit and strength of the Israelites through taxation and forced, harsh labor, and eventually death.  Despite these measures, the Israelite population and strength continued to increase.  This is one of the earliest instances of religious persecution.

I have been fortunate to have lived in two countries and in a time period where religious differences are not only possible and respected but celebrated.  In Jamaica, I attended the elementary school established by the Jewish community and a public high school founded by Franciscan nuns – both welcoming to and attended by children of all faiths. Church leaders and government dignitaries annually attended our Rosh Hashanah services to celebrate the New Year with us, and our spiritual leader was invited to celebrate with other faiths. Here in Newton we’ve just celebrated a season of lights – we saw chanukiot glowing and Christmas trees sparkling.  Sitting today in our midst are family members and friends of other religions who have come to share this occasion.

However, much of the world does not enjoy these religious freedoms.  And it seems to be increasingly getting worse.  We all know the story of the Spanish Inquisition where Jews were forced to denounce their religion or flee their country.  And we are aware of how the Holocaust has touched the lives of so many, including those in this Congregation.  Recently, the news has been filled with reports of religious persecution worldwide.  Christians and Yezidis are systematically tortured and killed by ISIL.  This past November Kenyans traveling by bus were singled out and shot dead because they were Christians.  Nigerian girls live in fear of being kidnapped and forced into marriages and servitude by Boko Haram; hundreds have already suffered that fate.

Are the fundamentalist groups the new Pharaoh?  Are they inflicting Pharaoh-like oppression on others through slavery, fear, torture and death; even upon members of their own religion?  The Israelites were blessed to have Moses come lead them away from Pharaoh’s bondage.  Where is the Moses of the Christians in Kenya?  Who will rescue the girls in Nigeria?  Who will protect the non-fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan?  Who will be the Moses to stand up to ISIL?

There is hope when we reflect on the actions of our civil rights heroes – Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela.  They showed us that individuals can change the world for the better. We see hope in the more than sixty countries who have joined the US-led coalition to fight ISIL.  We see hope in Malala, a young girl who stood up to the Taliban.  Hope exists in the small acts of individuals bringing together people of different religions such as the Hand in Hand interfaith schools in Jerusalem.

As you sit here today, take a moment to truly appreciate the religious freedom you enjoy.  Think about a small step you can take to stop these modern day Pharaohs.  We are not required to solve the problem but we can play a part in bringing about more religious freedom than the year before – through charity, calling attention to the issues, and being more accepting and tolerant of one another.  As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Shabbat Shalom!

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Forgotten Heroes of the Exodus Story

By Carol Gabel Berlin, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Popular culture has brought the story of the Exodus from Egypt into our lives.  Moses, God and Pharaoh have starring roles.  We love this story for many reasons, especially because it serves to teach several important lessons including overcoming oppression and putting our faith in God.  “Remembering that we were once slaves in Egypt,” helps to frame our moral code.  This time in our history informs our Shabbat service.  It influences our interpretation of modern historical figures from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela.  Moses was a larger than life hero, as were these modern figures. How surprising it is to find in the Talmud, “It was the reward of the righteous women of that generation that caused Israel to be redeemed from Egypt.”  These are powerful words about a story that for most is about the heroics of men.

We find these women tucked neatly into the portion read today. Seven verses in parashat Shemot are about the midwives Shifrah and Puah.  With the mention of midwives seven times in as many lines, I believe we are meant to pay heed to these women, and particularly to the impact their brave and defiant actions had on the Hebrew people.

Pharaoh had demanded that Puah and Shifrah kill all Jewish male babies as they are born, but they don’t.   Pharaoh summons the midwives and asks them why they let the Hebrew boys live.  Puah and Shifrah explain to Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women.  They have lively births, and the babies are active before they arrive.  Thus they cannot follow Pharaoh’s decree to kill the boys as they are born.  This portion explains their actions by saying that the women are “God fearing.” God rewards the midwives with homes, and the people increase greatly.

These two brave women really mattered.   They acted as if everything depended on them, in a form of civil disobedience that caused our numbers to multiply, Moses to be born, and perhaps even allow us to be gathered here today.

Who are Puah and Shifrah, and what is it that makes them so brave?  What does it mean to say they are “God fearing?”  How did they become God fearing?  The answers to all of these questions can be found in their work.

The delivery of babies is a miracle of creation.  Today we may understand this scientifically, but it remains a miracle.  We stand in awe of each of these little creations, these new lives. Shifrah and Puah witnessed this miracle with each healthy birth.  How could the midwives disregard their life’s meaningful work and follow the Pharaoh’s orders?  Are they God fearing?  Although the Torah says they were, we might not choose those words. I understand this as coming to God through their actions.  Shifrah and Puah followed their hearts. The miracle of birth was their connection to creation, their connection to a higher power.

When Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill these small miracles, he shows that he really doesn’t understand the emotional connection of a midwife to her work, bringing forth new life into this world. Pharaoh was far removed from the miracle of birth, creation, and God.  Sadly, as this portion concludes, Pharaoh tries another method, demanding that all Hebrew boys be thrown at birth into the Nile River.

The midwives bring the babies through a narrow place, mitzrayim, to begin life.  This act of civil disobedience leads to the growth of the Jewish people.  This portion states, “The people multiplied and increased greatly.”  The Hebrew word for a narrow place, mitzrayim, is also the word for Egypt.  These heroic midwives bring Jewish lives into the world, creating the multitude that would leave Egypt, to leave the narrow place, Mitzrayim.  Their actions are a metaphor for the bigger story, the miracle of the flight from slavery to freedom.

Midrash tells us that Shifrah and Puah were actually Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Miriam, his sister.  I like this midrash because it positions Miriam, referred to later in Exodus as a prophet, as a central focus in the story of the Exodus, as a giver of life, as she is throughout the rest of our story.

In another Midrash, it is told that Miriam’s father divorces her mother to avoid the killing of children by Pharaoh. His example is followed by other husbands in the community.  If there are not new babies, none can be thrown into the Nile.  Miriam, also acting as if everything depends on her, says to her father, “You are worse than the Pharaoh because you are keeping all children from being born.”  This in turn causes the fathers to return to their wives, and in the case of Yocheved and her husband, leads to the birth of Moses.

Miriam, throughout our story, sustains life.  As Puah, she is life giving.  In her chastising of her father, the results are again, new life.   It is Miriam who places her baby brother into the water, but stays to watch him be drawn out by Pharaoh’s daughter.   It is Miriam who, during the travels we will study in coming weeks, finds the well that sustains the multitude as they move forth, out of Egypt, out of the narrow place.  Miriam is life giving.  If we are to accept that Miriam is also Puah, she begins as a young girl as a giver of life, a fighter for freedom.

An act of civil disobedience leads to the growth of the Jewish people, to the Exodus from Egypt.  Opposition to Pharaoh’s decree builds our community and leads us from that narrow place, from Egypt.  One of my favorite prayers that precedes the Amidah says, “Pray as If everything depended on God.  Act as if everything depended on you.”  Puah and Shifrah understood this.  We all should.

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A Stranger in a Strange Land

By Lauren Adams, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

The three verses I read, which conclude our parasha, describe Moses’s flight to Midian after he kills an Egyptian slave-master. At a well in Midian, he meets the daughters of a Midianite priest who are trying to draw water for their flock but have been driven away by shepherds. In the next few verses, Moses defends the priest’s daughters, and their father invites him to the house to break bread. The priest then gives his daughter Zipporah to Moses as a wife.  Moses and Zipporah have a son whom he names Gershom, which means “a stranger there,” for, Moses, says, “Ger hayiti b’eretz nachriyah, I have been a stranger in a strange a land.”

Moses’s statement, made at this particular time in his life, is rather paradoxical. Unlike his fellow Israelites, who have long been strangers in the land of Egypt, Moses recognizes himself as a stranger in a strange land only when he leaves Egypt. A Jew raised as an Egyptian, Moses had been a stranger all of his life. But it is in Midian, where Moses is taken for an Egyptian (presumably because of his clothes), that he feels like a stranger. Only once Zipporah’s family welcomes him does he recognize his strangeness.

Even before trying to unravel this paradox while thinking about our parasha, the phrase a stranger in a strange land called out to me.  The image of a young man wandering into new territory, not yet knowing his future, takes me back to my first encounters with Judaism and Jewish texts. The most memorable of these was my very first Passover Seder, at the home of dear friends of my husband, Jonathan’s—and now mine. On that special evening, our friends were also hosting a distinguished guest, Dr. Abram Sachar, a renowned Jewish historian and the first president of Brandeis University. My head was swimming that night as I tried to keep up with the dialogue. Having grown up Catholic with only a passing familiarity with the ten plagues and the parting of the red sea, I could barely follow the sophisticated discussion of connecting texts and related stories.  A stranger in a strange land, indeed. I’m sorry to say that I’ve retained nothing of the intellectual substance from that night, but the shared participation in the telling, the delicious Sephardic foods, and the resounding call of “Next year in Jerusalem!” made a lasting impression. I did not yet know that it was only the beginning of my Jewish education.

In the years that followed, as Jonathan and I built a life together and decided to raise our children Jewish, my exploration of Judaism continued and deepened.  We brought Jewish traditions into our home, and I took classes to keep up with what my children were learning in Sunday school. Eventually, my curiosity pulled me further into study, and I fell in love with the texts, with the history, with the traditions and values of the Jewish people.

Given my own journey into the Jewish community, the paradox of Moses’s strangeness resonates deeply with me. In Midian, where Moses is “a stranger,” he meets his wife Zipporah and her father, a Midianite priest who later becomes his trusted advisor. They go on to travel together in Sinai, and the priest helps him lead. In the strange land of Midian, Moses meets his new family, and stays for 40 years.

Twenty-five years ago, I did not recognize that special Seder as the first step in my journey to Judaism.  As I stand with my classmates today after another rich year of study together, I look back and remember, “Ger hayiti b’eretz nachriyah, I have been a stranger in a strange a land.” But now that land is home.

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Divrei Torah from Adult B’nai Mitzvah

Last Shabbat, we celebrated with ten (a minyan!) students who were called up to the Torah as adult b’nai mitzvah. This group studied together weekly for 18 months. They learned prayers to lead the service, they read from the Torah, and each of them prepared a d’var Torah on the week’s parashaShemot.

The service was incredible for so many reasons. It was a special event. At the service, we passed out booklets that had all of their divrei Torah printed in it for people to read and enjoy. I would be remiss if I didn’t share their words, though, in a more open space. So, starting today and for the next ten days, I’m going to post one of their divrei Torah here on our synagogue blog. Read through them. I think you’ll enjoy them. Their perspectives are remarkable, and prove that there really are shivim panim ba-Torah, at least seventy faces to Torah.

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Leading in Jewish Social Justice

By Melanie Fineman

(This past November, Melanie spoke from the bima at Friday night Shabbat services. She spoke powerfully about the connection between her Jewish life and social justice. The following are her remarks.)

Our Torah portion this week, Vayeitzei, opens with a journey: Jacob leaves his hometown of Beersheba and travels to Haran (28:10). And so it is only fitting that I am here, having come back to Newton after living in my new home in Washington DC. And just like when Jacob set off to find his place, I will continue, slowly yet surely, to find my place in this Jewish community. Though unlike Jacob, I am not fleeing anything: there is nothing that I would like to escape or avoid. Moreover, I am trying to learn as much as I possibly can to gain clarity about how I personally can partake in tikkun olam, or healing the world.

I have always had a strong Jewish Identity; I became a Bat Mitzvah and was confirmed at Temple Shalom, went to Eisner camp for one summer, traveled to Prague, Poland, and Israel for five weeks the summer after my sophomore year of high school with NFTY L’Dor V’Dor. I was an avid participant in the Temple Shalom Mother-Daughter Book Group when I was in Middle School. I also had a passion for political action and social justice. Every Sunday, my dad would hand me a dollar bill to bring to Religious School, which I would then place in the class tzedekah box. Temple Shalom’s Mitzvah Day was an annual highlight, and I was proud that my parents ran one of the projects. When wintertime came, I would walk up and down Temple Shalom’s social hall participating in the Mitzvah Mall. As I have grown older, I have discovered that my desire to help others could take root in ways other than through the community service contributions of my youth: I volunteered for political campaigns, interned at government offices, and engaged in public policy work. This political and government activism had always been fairly separate from my Jewish identity, and I was eager to see how the two intersected.

Just as Jacob begins his journey, he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and Earth, with various angels climbing and descending on it. The angels move up and down, fluctuating from the spiritual elements of faith to something more relevant down on
Earth. How could my Jewish values and Jewish ideals connect with policy and with the government action that I valued so deeply?
When I was a freshman in college I came across the Machon Kaplan Internship Program for undergraduate students interested in Judaism and social justice. The program is based in Washington DC and run by the Religious Action Center of Reform
Judaism, the DC office of the Union for Reform Judaism. The RAC educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns. The organization advocates on over seventy different issues and serves as the social justice arm for the Union For Reform Judaism. The RAC hosts a number of programs, such as Machon Kaplan. For six weeks, students intern at various nonprofits, take classes exploring the relationship between faith and social justice, and live in dorm rooms at George Washington University with the other program participants. I was thrilled when I was accepted into the program. I was so fortunate that I could be a part of the RAC that, like a ladder, relates Judaism to work on the ground and ultimately makes it relevant to
the structures and systems facing us in today’s society. The RAC also has a fellowship program where recent college graduates participate as Eisendrath Legislative Assistants, or as LAs.

Several members of the Temple Shalom family were LAs including Julie Vanek and Liz Piper-Goldberg Hirsch. I am fortunate to get to be one of six LAs for the 2014-2015 season. This week’s Torah portion also emphasizes the outcome of hard work. Jacob is asked to work for his Uncle Laban by tending his sheep for seven years. Only after his hard work can he advance and ultimately achieve this end goal. Sometimes, we all have to persevere through difficult situations. At the RAC, I currently work on the economic justice portfolio. This includes housing, homelessness, hunger, taxes, the budget, aging and the elderly, children’s issues, labor, minimum wage, and paid sick leave. These are a lot of issues, and very important ones at that. I am responsible for researching these issues, relating the topic to our tradition, educating clergy and URJ members, lobbying and writing on the RAC blog. Let me share with you some of the
findings of my research and some of what I have learned over the past few months.

In our society, there are too many people currently 46.2 million Americans are currently in poverty and 47 million Americans, or 15% of the population, receive SNAP benefits, or food snaps. The US Department of Agriculture reports that last year over 49 million
Americans lived in a household that faced difficulty affording enough food. 15.8 million children struggled with food insecurity issues in the past year and 50% of U.S children will receive SNAP benefits at some point before they reach the age of 20. Our Jewish tradition is explicit in the command that we feed the hungry and help eradicate hunger from our society. For instance, In Isaiah 58:7, God commands us to “share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into [our] house.”

It has become increasingly difficult for American families to stay in their own home. A recent comprehensive state-by-state report sponsored by the National Center on Family Homelessness at American Institutes for Research shows that the number of homeless children in the country has reached a record high, amounting in one in thirty children being homeless! This means that 2.5 million children in the United States, about half of whom are under the age of six, go to sleep without a home of their own each night, a historic high in the number of homeless children in the U.S.

All of these issues are interconnected: The major causes of American homelessness include the high national poverty rate, a lack of affordable housing across the country, the Great Recession’s continuing impacts, racial disparities, the challenges of single parenting, and how traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, precede and prolong homelessness for families. High costs of living, compounded by the lack of
affordable housing, further exacerbates the problem. Federal housing assistance, state housing assistance, and incentives for developers to build low-income housing units have met the high demand to feed America’s homeless. We can’t just solve or fix one of these problems – all of the issues regarding economic inequality in our society must be solved together. We need to address all of the root foundations that place people in poverty and that place people behind.

One way to combat these issues is by ensuring that workers are earning a living wage: the minimum wage needs to be raised in order to help workers earn enough to raise a family. Over the last forty years, the real value of the minimum wage has fallen by
close to 30%, demonstrating a need to raise the wage to account for changing cost values. The 1968 federal minimum wage would be worth over $10/hour in today’s dollars – yet our current minimum wage of $7.25/hour is far below that. Our current
minimum wage translates to a lifetime of poverty, not near enough for anyone to live by: in no states can a minimum wage worker afford a two-bedroom apartment working a 40 hour week. Raising the minimum wage would also help improve the economy, by increasing productivity, reducing turnover, saving on recruiting/training costs, reducing absenteeism, and lifting 2 million Americans out of poverty.

Though the Torah recognizes that we cannot necessarily eliminate all poverty, we are taught that we must work to alleviate its impact. In addition, the Torah also emphasizes the importance of a worker’s wages: “you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer… but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).” Making sure the vulnerable and the worker are provided for is a responsibility for us as a society as well as us as individuals. Through the RAC, I was able to get involved with the Nebraska minimum wage race and helped a reform rabbi and Congregationalist minister write an interfaith op-ed encouraging voters to vote yes on initiative 425, the Nebraska ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage. It was exciting when the minimum wage was raised in four states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota – after last fall’s election day. We can make a difference.

We can also do more to increase the number of paid sick days individuals have access to. The RAC got involved in our Commonwealth’s Ballot Question 4, a call for Massachusetts workers to have earned sick time. We created an online social media tool called a Thunderclap that reached 85,000 people to raise awareness about Question 4, made a pledge to remind voters to vote on Question 4, and encouraged our clergy to write op-eds about paid sick leave. Temple Shalom’s own Rabbi Neil Hirsch wrote an op-ed that got placed in the Massachusetts Jewish Ledger. We also hosted a conference call for our clergy in Massachusetts about Question 4, and RAC staff members called rabbis at all of our Reform congregations to raise awareness about the issue. It was exciting to be part of an effort to make an impact in my own home state.

I also feel good knowing that I spend every day fighting for important government programs that are helping make individuals’ lives better. Social safety net programs are crucial to ensuring children who are experiencing poverty stay afloat. The share of federal funding directed towards children has declined and today amounts to under 8 percent of the overall budget. In 2013 federal safety net programs kept 8.2 million
children, over 11% of all children, out of poverty.

Our Jewish values encourage us to advocate for systems that can lift people out of poverty. Jewish history also provides us with an example for helping the needy. During Talmudic times, much of tzedakah was done though tax-financed, community-run programs that helped those in needed, paralleling the entitlement security that we fight for and continue to fight for today.

So I’ve spent a lot of time tonight talking about problems and issues facing our society, but I don’t want to lost sight that the RAC believes that we can act to mitigate these differences. What am I doing, as someone working on behalf of this denomination of Judaism, which was founded on the grounds of making your Judaism relevant to your life, on making decisions regarding how to practice faith and how to live a Jewish life through knowledge. I feel so fortunate to be working for an organization that embraces the journey of striving to make the world a better place and to advocate for policies that benefit all, not just reform Jews, or the Jewish community at large.

Visit the RAC’s web site at www.rac.org – on the web site, you will find action alerts that encourage you to contact your elected officials on issues that matter to you.

The other LAs and I write several blog posts a week about the issues in our portfolio and what our reform Jewish values say about them. Soon students from Temple Shalom will fly down to Washington DC to participate in one of the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminars, opportunities for high schoolers to learn about issues as well as what the reform movement has to say about policies and ultimately concluding in lobby visits, where the students will visit their own elected officials and advocate as ambassadors for Temple Shalom, for the Reform Movement, and ultimately for themselves. My fellow Legislative Assistants and I are doing a lot of work to prepare interactive programs, lobby materials, talking points, and memos to support these conferences – and to provide information to guide these high school students on their own Jewish journeys in pursuit of social justice.

How can we follow in the footsteps of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Rebecca, of Sarah, of Leah, and work to heal the world?

Our Jewish tradition encourages us to not be complacent in the face of these economic injustices, but to continue to advocate for programs to lift up those in need. Tzedakah is not simply a matter of charity, but of responsibility, righteousness, and justice. We are
told in Proverbs 31:9, to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”

Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: justice, justice, you shall pursue. And these are words that I will continue to carry with me, for the rest of my life and as I continue my journey. Jacob was not sure what his journey would bring, when he left Beersheva to travel to Haran. And nor do I know what will come next. Yet I will remain inspired by the ladder connecting what is holy to what is going on right here on the ground, with the angels floating up and down in between it. And I know that I will do everything possible to do
good work and leave a positive mark on this planet, with my Jewish values guiding me every step of the way.

Shabbat Shalom, and happy holidays.

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Parashat Pekudei: Enough! Time for Shabbat.

Here are my remarks from last night’s Kabbalat Shabbat service. I’d love to know what others think about the Getting Things Done system, and how it plays as a spiritual practice. If you have any thoughts, make sure to leave your comments here.

Shabbat Shalom!

[audio https://www.dropbox.com/s/f29glb4odu6jng1/DV-2014-02-28-194408.m4a]
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Three Sinai Leaders

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The following is an adapted versions of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat, on Parashat Yitro.

Three new moons have passed since the Israelites had gone out of Egypt, and they now camp in the wilderness of Sinai. For forty days and nights, Moses is on Sinai, and the Israelites camp at its base. These moments are formative for everyone involved. Torah—our Tree of Life—is transmitted on top of Sinai, from God to Moses. Moses then brings it down to the people of Israel, only to find that in the mean time they have constructed the golden calf. These forty days are jam-packed with such significant spiritual detail, that touching on a single aspect would open up and let flow a wellspring of d’rash.

As the Israelites camp at the foot of Mount Sinai—similar to the Sea of Reeds—the biblical authors and the Rabbis seemed to focus on the importance of particular personalities. In this instance, the Sinai moment is critical in instructing us as to who Moses, Aaron, and Joshua are as our ancestral leadership. To look at these three figures in terms of their leadership at Sinai, gives us three perspectives on how leadership plays out in the life of a congregation of Israel.

Moses is the one who ascends Sinai. For forty days and nights, there he is, receiving Torah from God. God and he speak panim el panim, face to face. Together, God and Moses speak clearly, without complication. With no one else does God have a relationship like God does with the servant, Moses. Moses has been afforded position among the People. God makes him the leader; yet, as Moses’ childhood foreshadows, having been raised in Pharaoh’s house, Moses is lives the life of an outsider. The top of a mountain covered in clouds or behind a closed door in the corner office–a leader who stays in such a place is by definition removed from his or her followers.

Still, he overcomes such obstacles and is esteemed within the community. He is known for his humility, and he—in receiving the mitzvot from God—is a model exemplar of someone who follows the mitzvot.

Well, that is, until he breaks the mitzvot. In a moment of grief, anger, and despair, Moses loses himself in front of his people, publicly going against God’s commands. The people need water, and Moses is told to speak to a rock in order that it may give what the people need. Yet, he strikes out at the rock. Water flows from it, but he has publicly disobeyed God’s command.

Exemplary leadership is only good until it isn’t any more. There are boundless examples of leader’s indiscretions and improprieties coming to light, only to fracture the tokenism to which we hold them. How troubling. Would we not rather our leaders, and others, to be real people, rather than symbols that mask personality? We are bound to show cracks and fissures when trying to be a symbol over a person. Moses cannot even strive to be Moses all the time.

Sometimes, leaders find themselves acting a bit more like Aaron.

Aaron, after all, is the one who is in the fray. He is the one there at the golden calf. Commentators debate Aaron’s culpability in the sin of the golden calf. He is ambiguous in his role there. While Moses is on the mountain, removed from the people, out of relationship with the people—albeit in profoundly deep relationship with God—Aaron is the one there with them. Moses is delayed from coming down the mountain, and so the Israelites say to Aaron: “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” The people are ready to the act. Aaron—as the priest for the Israelites—right or wrong, is there with them. In Aaron’s leadership, although troublesome, he is among the people.

When one leads from among, he or she is in the moment with the people, responding to immediate needs and wants. Leaders who lead from this place are not a part of the lofty conversations had at the highest rungs of leadership—they are not the ones on top of Sinai. They are those who respond to and act with the masses. Aaron and Moses, as two brothers in quite different places at Sinai, are leadership in dichotomy.

Among the people, responding to bacchanalia-like behaviors, or up in the clouds, receiving values, vision, and grand designs from Greatest of Greats? Perhaps a middle-ground can be found.

During all this time at Sinai, the Rabbis wonder: where is Joshua? As the one who will succeed Moses in leadership, who will take Torah from Moses and give it to the assembly, where does he fit into this picture? One midrash states that Joshua is the one who is half-way up the mountain.

Joshua is neither here nor there. He is not the worst qualities of either, nor is he the best of either. Like a child who takes on the attributes of both parents, Joshua, in his leadership, figures out a way to lead people forward with both vision and reality in hand. He can say to the Israelites: Chazak v’eimatz, be strong and resolute, do not be afraid, for God is with us.” In such a statement, he lets the people know that there is a goal, a Promised Land, and a God who has ordained the actions they are taking. In Chazak V’eimatz, Joshua is also saying that with that vision, he understands the reality of the situation. Joshua is a warrior. He brings the people into the land, and goes to battle to take various communities in which the Israelites can dwell. As a warrior and soldier, he must deal with reality in order to win the battle. Both a visionary and rooted in reality, Joshua offers us a model of leadership that is balanced, that is half-way up and half-way down Sinai.

At the base of Sinai sit the people, wanting to serve God in this newfound freedom. To do so, they need instruction, they need direction, they need the gift of Torah, which only Moses can bring down to them. And at the base of Sinai, they also long to be payed attention to, to be noticed, to be made to feel special. Aaron fills that role. And Joshua is the one who can pull our people’s story forward, to even greater heights after Sinai, into the Land of Israel.

Three leaders, each speak to behaviors that are not—in truth—encapsulated in a particular time or place. Each of us find ourselves at Sinai moments, or encounter others we want to ask to be there with us at Sinai. Are we Moses in those moments? Are we Aaron? Are we Joshua? Who are we in our best and worst moments of leadership? What are we asking from our leaders when we expect them to be our symbolic exemplars or to corrupt themselves with us in communal sin? As we stand at Sinai, we are afforded the gift of reflection on where we currently find ourselves, and where we long to go.

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Redeeming Mr. Banks

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Earlier today we did what all good Jewish Americans do on Christmas Day: go see a movie, and then have Chinese food. The movie we went for was Saving Mr. Banks.

As we were brought into the making of one of the Disney greats, I was loving the fact that they were bringing up what for me is the major message of Mary Poppins: that she comes to free Mr. Banks.

In 2009 I delivered my senior sermon at HUC-JIR on this very topic. Here is the sermon I delivered:

A few weeks ago, a couple of friends and I decided that it was movie night. We took a look at the movie listings, and Bride Wars seemed to be our best option. Needless to say, I was unenthusiastic.

Then the phone rang. It was 7:30. Our friend Hope was on the other end. She had tickets for the 8:00 Mary Poppins on Broadway, and she was not going to be able to make it. Could we use the tickets? Bride Wars or Broadway show: my choice was just made easier. I am glad Hope called, because otherwise, I would not be enabled to proclaim that Mary Poppins is the best Broadway musical I have ever seen. It is one of those stories where kids hear one thing, adults another. When I was a child, the play was about the fun and frolic that a brother and sister have with their nanny. I was struck by the message I heard now as an adult.

Mary Poppins, carried by the wind, comes to 17 Cherry Hill Lane to serve as the Banks family nanny. In the process, she serves as an aid in the family’s realization, in the family’s revelation, that their love for one another is deep, and that they have all of the tools within themselves to care, keep, and bring up one another as strong and good human beings. Mary stays on only as long as she is needed. Then, the wind guides her to another family that needs her, another family, who could also turn their entire lives around.

Mary Poppins is able to take on her role for the Banks family because she is an outsider. She can see what those who are in the thick of it cannot. This freedom, this clear-sightedness, enables her to see what needs to be done—both what the Banks family needs to realize for itself, and what she needs to do to get them there. Parshat Yitro offers a similar example.

Vayishmah Yitro – and Yitro heard. He has heard all that God has done for the Israelite people. He has heard about God as the Creator of the world in six days, of Noah and the flood, of Abraham and Isaac and the Akeidah, of Jacob and Leah and Rachel. Yitro has heard of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt, of their wailing, and of God’s miracles in the Exodus.

After hearing the entire Israelite story, Yitro finds them off in the wilderness. He chooses to join the Israelites and, in doing so, gains the power that only an outsider can have. Yitro has perspectives that other leaders among the Israelites lack. Moses and the people are not aimlessly wandering in the wilderness; they are heading for something. They are like a bunch of people who bump around a dark room in search of the light switch. Yitro walks into that dark room, and his eyesight seems function just fine.

What does Yitro see? Vayar chotein Moshe et-kol-asher-hu oseh la-am—he sees all that Moses does for the people. From morning to night—min ha-boker ad ha-erev—Moses sits to judge all the people who stand before him.

“What are you doing?” exclaims Yitro, “Why are you sitting alone all day with the people standing before you?”

Meekly, Moses responds, “The people come before me lidrosh Elohim, to seek God. I judge between the people and explain to them God’s laws and teachings.”

Lo tov ha-davar asher atah oseh. This is not a good thing that you are doing, for yourself and for the people,” explains Yitro. Moses’ vision is blurred, and his father-in-law helps him to see that the Israelites are engaged in inefficient bureaucracy. Yitro does more than simply give good consultation for public policy. Yitro recognizes that there are spiritual gains to be had; after all, he is a priest, a man concerned with the sacred. By freeing Moses from sitting before the Israelites all day, Yitro enables his son-in-law to become the spiritual leader of the Israelites; he can become who he is destined to be. By freeing the people from standing before Moses, Yitro beckons their rise from the dark valley of the wilderness to the enlightened slopes of Mount Sinai.

And Yitro not only motions toward the Sinai revelation. Before Sinai, there was Ha-S’neh. “Moses, shepherding Yitro’s flock, drove it into the wilderness.” There, Moses as a shepherd, as a ro-eh, comes upon a strange sight, ha-s’neh, the burning bush, aflame but not consumed. In this moment, Moses is transformed from simple shepherd into someone who is another type of ro-eh, into someone who sees. The burning bush is a moment of personal revelation. Moses hears God’s message, in which he then becomes a third type of ro-eh, a ro-eh El, God’s companion. Had Yitro not given Moses a home and a vocation, Moses would not have become ro-eh, a shepherd, an enlightened leader, someone who sees God face to face.

Upon learning his mission, Moses goes back to his father-in-law to seek his leave and return to Egypt. “Lech l’shalom,” Yitro responds, “Go in peace.” As Moses comes to Yitro and helps with the family flock, Yitro now sends his son-in-law back to shepherd the People of Israel. Yitro is an enabler of destinies, he foreshadows revelation, Yitro is in the business of bringing people out of the darkness and into the light.

Imagine we are in a cave, perhaps like the caves at Qumran, filled with dusty sandstone and dry, hot air. We sit bound down for our entire existence. The cave is dark, except for a fire lit behind us. Because we are stuck to our spots, we cannot crane around and see the flames. But, projected on the wall before us are the shadows of objects passed before the fire. We can see these. We know these shadows. For us, these shadows are our truth.

Suddenly, one of us realizes he is not bound down to his chair. He can stand and turn his body around. He sees the fire and the objects passed before it as they actually are—not only their shadows. For this person, he has entered into a new realm of reality. The shadows are true, but truth exists beyond them as well. He does not stop there. He—with everyone else still bound to his or her spot—discovers the opening to the cave. He can emerge into the light-filled world, a feeling that must be akin to the Israelites leaving the wilderness and emerging into the Promised Land.
At some point, though, our able-bodied person feels drawn back to the cave. His shackles were undone. Maybe he can help to free others as well.

Plato, a thinker outside of our tradition, helps us see that there are those who have the innate ability to break the shackles of rote understanding, who can move out of the darkness into the light, and then choose to return to the darkness in order to enable others to see the light.
So it is with Yitro. Yitro has already seen the light as he enters the wilderness with the Israelites. He understands what Moses is trying to do for the people—lidrosh Elohim,—to seek God and to make known God’s laws and teachings.

Before Yitro’s arrival, Moses only works with the shadows of God’s Torah. To seek God one must engage all of the senses, involve all of one’s being, b’kol l’vavcha u’v’chol nafshecha, with all one’s heart and with all one’s soul. That is the Sinai experience. Moses and the Israelites find that out amid the blasts of thunder and the rumbles of earthquakes. If we are to hear God’s message, to be present for revelation, we cannot remain in the cave staring at the shadows as if they are the full truth of things. Anyone can break the bonds, stand up, walk out of the cave, and straight up to the foothills of Sinai.

We are fond of saying that our calling is to be like Moses—to be teachers, to be interpreters. But part of our task is also to be like Yitro, to facilitate revelation for others.

We can help people to understand our tradition’s laws and teachings, but then we only show the shadows cast on the cave wall. We stand ready for our moment at Sinai, and we are simultaneously called upon to help others to turn around, to help others to see the flames, and to go beyond that.

​To go beyond, we should take a lesson from Bahiya ibn Paquda, the 11th Century Spanish thinker, who said that we must not be content to believe that the intellectual pursuit is enough; rather, when we stand ready for God with our whole being, intellectually and emotionally, we cultivate an attention to God’s presence, we are on the watch for the Divine.

We must recognize that people come to us as the Israelites come to Moses. They seek meaning in their lives. They are looking for God as they wander in a sort of wilderness. We are tasked in that moment to respond as Moses, to teach Jewish tradition, and to respond as Yitro, to teach others how to be on the watch, to guide people as they emerge ready to stand at their own Sinai.

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