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Don’t Let the Light Go Out! Finding New Meaning in Familiar Words

menorahChanukah time:  the smells of foods cooking in oil; the beautiful lights which increase night by night; the sounds of songs and prayers being sung and chanted. I love it all.

One song in particular resonates quite powerfully for me this year. In truth, it has been among my favorites ever since I first heard back in 1983.  A newly ordained rabbi, I travelled with friends from New York City to Tanglewood in the Berkshires of Massachusetts for a Peter, Paul and Mary concert.  Word was that Peter had written a new song with a Chanukah theme. I was intrigued – and as always, excited to see and hear PP&M.  PPMUnbeknownst to me, one of my friends recorded the concert, including Peter’s new song. I spent most of the ride back to Manhattan winding and rewinding the tape as I tried to capture the lyrics on paper.  Once home, I grabbed my guitar as I worked to figure out the chords. I was pumped!

Light one candle, for the Maccabee children. Give thanks that their light didn’t die!

I loved it from the very first time I heard it from the stage that evening in Tanglewood’s shed.

 Light one candle for the pain we endured, when our rights to exist were denied.

 The song took our people’s sorrowful history and linked it to life in the world we inhabit today.  What a great teaching tool!

Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice, justice and freedom demand.

 The song doesn’t just link us to our past, it forcefully challenges us to live our values in the present.

Light one candle for the strength that we need, to never become our own foes.

Oh how these words stab at me against the backdrop of our day-to-day national political discourse.

Light one candle for those who are suffering, the pains we learned so long ago

We Jews know the pain of being called “other.” We dare not remain silent. We must raise our voices, together with people other faiths to stem the tide of hate and vitriol being spewed across our land.

Light one candle for all we believe in; Let anger not tear us apart.

The venom and bile of the Presidential campaign and in the halls of Congress do not represent the America I dream of. I know I’m not alone.

And light one candle to bind us together, with peace as the song in our heart. 

Peter’s words were tearing at my heart soul with a new urgency.  Singing Light One Candle in a time of terror, but even more, against the backdrop of the discourse across our nation as Presidential candidates such as Donald Trump and others posit hateful stances towards “the other” – in this case, Muslims at large. I felt my heart cracking. Light one candle for the pain we endured, when our rights to exist were denied.  Even as we grapple as a nation, and as a world, with the horrors of ISIS and other terrorist groups, we dare not allow ourselves to fall prey to absolutist xenophobia and hateful demagoguery.

In the song’s final stanza we ask:

What is the memory that’s valued so highly. That we keep alive in that flame? 

We challenge ourselves:

What’s the commitment to those who have died, that we cry out: “They’ve not died in vain!”

We must gird ourselves:

We have come this far, always believing, that justice will somehow prevail

In these days of physical darkness, and this time when fear, hatred and intolerance are being offered as public policy and a national value, let us remember:

This is the burden, and this is the promise; And this is why we CAN not fail.  (Forgive me Peter Yarrow, a slight emendation)

Many are linking the hateful verbiage, especially within our political discourse with “the pains we learned so long ago.” We dare not lose sight of the message Peter Yarrow implanted within his Light One Candle.  For me, it’s more than a folk song.  As I sang with our Cantor and community this past Friday night; and again with our Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade students and parents just this morning, I hear these words as a call to action. This is not just a link to the past.  It’s a call in our present so that we may look towards a just and peaceful future. In the words of Peter’s refrain:

Light One CandleDon’t let the light go out, It’s lasted for so many years!  Continue reading

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Might We Heed Joseph’s Advice to Pharaoh in Our Time?

Joseph Interprets Pharoah's Dream

x1952-129, Joseph Interprets Pharoah’s Dream, Artist: Tissot, Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York

Joseph the dreamer! His is a story that always fascinates. There are so many aspects of the story to which we can relate: Sibling relationships; parents playing favorites; power and powerlessness, and of course, the meaning and impact of dreams. This is one Biblical story we know well.  It has been retold in countless children’s books, and of course, courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Weber on stage and screen.

Joseph, who at the outset of this week’s Torah reading, finds himself in prison, will, in short order, finds himself before Pharaoh, king of Egypt. His dexterity in interpreting dreams which only a week ago got him into deep trouble with his family will now be his lifeline as he finds himself released from prison and subsequently elevated by Pharaoh to a position second only to the King’s.

There is an interchange between Pharaoh and Joseph which represents the key turning point for Joseph.  We read: “Joseph said to Pharaoh, “Pharaoh’s (two) dreams are one and the same: God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do. The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears are seven years . . . The seven lean and ugly cows that followed are seven years . . . of famine . . . God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do. Ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten . . . ‘Let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh  . . . appoint overseers over the land, and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty . . .  Let all the food of these good years that are coming be gathered . . Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt . . .The plan pleased Pharaoh and all his courtiers. Pharaoh said to his courtiers, ‘Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?’ So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.’ Pharaoh further said to Joseph, ‘See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt.’” (Genesis chapter 41, excerpts)

word-chochmah“Appoint a man of discernment and wisdom.” What a powerful passage to read, not only in the unfolding drama of our weekly Torah readings, but in our day as well.

These have been challenging days and weeks in our nation and our world. Vicious terror attacks, and vicious verbal assaults fill our daily news cycles and overflow in our consciousness.  As the days grow darker for us in this hemisphere, the darkness seems to become even more tangible amidst the turmoil of world events and the tumult of the discourse of our time.

Though it’s more protracted than many of us would like, the quadrennial Presidential leadership contest is sharing center stage with world events that day-by-day shed long shadows upon us. Equally dark is the rhetoric and posturing of those who seek the mantle of leadership at its highest rung in our nation.

Without regard for party, I am distressed by the rhetoric and the rooftopmisinformation and deliberate feints with regard to truth-telling that seemingly pass for the norm in our time. I hear Joseph’s words and want to shout a version of them from the rooftops: Let us appoint leaders of discernment and wisdom!  Not those who can play on and twist the fears that many in our midst harbor; but those who understand our values as a nation, and would lead by those values, rather than fear-mongering and demagoguery. Again I cry, Let us appoint leaders of discernment and wisdom! 

Shabbat Shalom!

Parashat Vayeshev – We’d Best Stop Dreaming and Start Screaming

b9csheb_301_detailSince the fall of my senior year in Rabbinical school, 1982-83, Parashat Vayeshev has held a special place in my heart.  I was among the “lucky” members of our 5th year class to preach not one, but two, “senior sermons” before the student body and faculty.  The first assignment, in my fourth year gave me Parashat Vayera (the announcement of Sarah’s impending pregnancy; Sodom and Gomorrah; the birth of Ishmael and the subsequent birth of Isaac; the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness; and the Akeida – the binding of Isaac.  Not a bad draw in terms of source material rich for preaching.  The second time around I drew this week’s portion as my assignment. Again, not bad: Joseph’s birth; his rise as “nudnik” within his family as he interpreted dreams that left no one feeling good; his brothers’ conspiracy to dispose of him; and his descent to and early years in Egypt.  Again, plenty of rich source material on which to focus.

For some reason I cannot exactly recall, my attention was drawn that fall to a single verse in our portion, Genesis 37:4 – “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” Though many years have passed, I still find myself drawn to that verse. Why is it that Joseph’s brothers cannot “speak a friendly word to him (a less-than-accurate translation of the Hebrew)? Conversely, reading the story at its simple level, it’s not so difficult to understand the cold shoulder Joseph inspires in his brothers. If you’re interested, join us for Minyan Torah study tomorrow morning.

This time around in reading and studying Genesis, I find myself called back to that same verse. I am drawn not so much by the story itself, but by the power of those words, lo yachlu dabro l’shalom – “they were unable to speak to him (or with him) of shalom.”

The week now ending has brought us, yet again, deeply disturbing news – this week in the form of the horrific attack in San Bernardino, CA. I need not repeat here the details.  We all know a fair amount from the cease
less reporting.  As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jeff Salkin has written in The Forward, “There was a time when I asked myself: “Who will  have to get killed in order for this nation to come to its senses? Whose loved one will have to die?” logo-forwardIn the story of the Exodus, Pharaoh’s own firstborn had to die in order for him to wise up, and to free the Israelites from their slavery. Who will have to die this time? The firstborn of the head of the NRA? Will that work?   No, it will not work. Because we simply don’t care anymore. Because we are numb.”

Rabbi Salkin’s words ring true for me. Even more, as the shooting incidents occur and the death tolls mount, I am stunned by our inability as a nation, to have a sane conversation about taking steps to put an end to the dying. Some cry the real issue is “mental health.” Others call for (but, in my opinion largely turn up lame when it comes to pursuing) gun control.  I have said it before, I believe the real mental health issue when it comes to the rampant availability of guns, especially attack weapons, is the insanity to believe that ether more guns or ignoring the situation are responsible positions.

In part because of our elected officials fear of, and in many cases, obeisance to the NRA, we are not even permitted to have a conversation about guns and gun control.  Witness how many presidential candidates simply changed the subject when asked about the shooting in Colorado last week, or San Bernardino this week.

In the midst of the nightmare of ongoing gun violence, we are living the very same syndrome which turned Joseph brothers away from him. If I may paraphrase, anachnu lo y’cholim l’dabeyr l’shalom – We are unable to speak of matters of peace, of wholeness.

Shame on us, and shame on our leaders – elected, or candidates, for failing to lead us in having a sane and responsible conversation about an important security matter that impacts us all – the place of guns in our society.

gun_control1For Joseph, the difficult episodes through which he lives in the portions we are reading this week and in weeks to come turn out well.  We are the dreamers if we dare kid ourselves that this bloody stream of shootings will turn out well without responsible, moral leadership. We will not see that leadership step up  without our raising our voices. As Rabbi Salkin says in his article, “Want a Jewish Response to San Bernardino Mass Shooting? Scream Bloody Murder.”

Shabbat Shalom

 

Vayishlach and Thanksgiving Weekend: A Timely Mix.

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For many, this weekend brings joy as we pause from our busy lives, gather with family and/or friends, and offer thanks for the blessings of our lives. The Macy’s Parade, football games, catching up, lots of food, and so much more. Each of our families has its own rituals for this truly American holiday. Yesterday afternoon found me in our backyard playing catch with 3 of my children. As I donned my long-neglected baseball mitt, I thought to myself, “Is this cliché or what?” It wasn’t the slightest bit cliché.  It felt quite real and oh so very good.

For some, family gatherings and reunions can be a time of anxiety.  Old tensions are sometimes reignited. Sometimes they even flare anew. Is he going to tell the same old stories we’ve been hearing year after year?  Is she going to bring that time, twenty years ago, when I . . .  We never can be quite certain of what to expect.

72311f19fb6877dc020583aca12c00ef_f288In our Torah portion, we read of Jacob, who has now spent some twenty years in Haran with his Uncle Laban.  He has worked hard, he has built a family, and he is ready to make the journey home to the land of Canaan.  However, to do so, he must pass by way of the land of Edom where his brother Esau now lives.  He too has worked hard.  He too now has a family.  No doubt, he still harbors more than a bit of resented towards his younger brother who, when last they were together, had tricked their father into offering him (Jacob) the blessing of the firstborn, intended for Esau. He has no idea Jacob is headed his way, so for him, Jacob is likely barely even an after-thought.  But for Jacob, crossing paths with his brother anew represents at the least, uncertainty, and more likely a high measure of anxiety.

So Jacob sets out for home.  Knowing he must pass through territory close to Esau he sends messengers to announce his impending arrival.  He receives back word that Esau is coming to meet him, with four hundred men.  Not knowing how to interpret Esau’s approach, and mindful of what he did to his brother twenty years earlier Jacob conceives of a plan. He divides all he has into two camps, figuring if Esau attacks, at least one might survive. He separates himself from both groups, and spends the night before he will potentially meet his brother alone.  As we know, the rest is “history.” At least it’s “Biblical narrative” as Jacob wrestles during that lonely night with an adversary whose identity is unknown. Angel? God? Esau? His own psyche?  Many have imagined, no one truly knows.

As morning breaks, and the fateful moment of meeting approaches we read, “And Jacob lifted up his eyes and saw, and, behold, Esau was coming, and with him four hundred men.  And he divided the children to Leah and to Rachel, … And he passed over before them, and bowed to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.” (Genesis 32:1-3) These are among the most tense passages in our Torah.  In the Midrash, the Rabbis attempt to imagine Jacob’s interior emotional landscape.  One such passage reads: “Rabbi Yehuda, the son of Rabbi Ilai, commenting on the verse ‘Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed’ (Gen 32:8), asked: ‘Are not fear and distress identical?’ Our Sages teach that the meaning is that Jacob was doubly afraid.  He was afraid that he might be killed. And he was distressed that he might kill in order to save himself, and his family. Jacob thought: If he prevails over me, will he not kill me?  And if I am stronger than he, will I not kill him? This is the meaning of what is written: “He was afraid – lest he should be slain; and he was distressed – lest he should slay (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 76).

So often, gathering with those we have not seen in a long time can provoke unexpectedly anxiety.  Our subconscious remembers what we have worked hard to forget. In our time, when families are so often living at great distances from one another, siblings, though years or decades removed from growing up together may slip into, or be dragged back into “the old ways.” All too often we see one another with the lenses of the past.

Jacob and Esau have bitter memories of one another. Certainly Jacob, and perhaps even Esau, approaches the reunion with trepidation. While their reunion does not establish a new chapter in which they will live out their years in renewing relationship, the picture Genesis portrays is hopeful and healing nonetheless: “Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel . . . He vayishlachhimself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. (Genesis 33:1-3)

Only in healing a piece of that which he had broken twenty years earlier was Jacob able to continue on his journey to fulfilling his potential. For such opportunities, to come together, to laugh, to cry, to heal and to share gratitude for blessings, indeed we should give thanks.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

A View From Israel Guest Blogger: Scott Birnbaum

O830703-israelflaggraafixblogspotcomflagsof-1422703836n Tuesday, October 20th, I received a mass email from Barry Shrage, CEO of CJP, announcing an emergency solidarity mission to Israel that would leave 2 days later. Few words would less accurately describe me than spontaneous, yet one day later, I signed up for the trip, and on Thursday night, little more than 48 hours after receive Barry’s email, I was on an El Al flight to Israel as part of a very small mission, consisting of Barry Shrage, Jeremy Burton, Executive Director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and two other lay people.

What possessed me? Frustration.

Like many, I had been avidly following news reports about the latest spate—the Israelis are calling it a “wave”—of violence, marked by random knife attacks on civilians. Among them, a 13-year old boy stabbed and gravely injured by two Palestinian teenagers, one also 13-years old—while he rode his bicycle in Jerusalem.

The last few years have witnessed other episodes of violence in Israel, including two mini-wars in Gaza, and horrific terrorist attacks, including a mass shooting in a synagogue in Har Hanof a year ago. Yet, this seemed different somehow, maybe because of the unlikeness of the perpetrators—“lone wolf” Arab youth and women, stirred to murderous violence by false reports about Jewish encroachments on the Temple Mount.

So, I said yes to the quickly organized mission, fulfilling a need to do something; in my case, to simply be there. I had no fear for my personal safety—I know how incredibly safety-conscious CJP missions are—yet I was making a statement about resilience in the face of terrorism. Just as Israelis were, by necessity, going about their daily lives, I wanted to share in that, to demonstrate by physical presence, solidarity with Israel and her people, as they endured these horrific events, and to show that, just as Israelis would not be cowed by terrorism, neither would I.

The trip lasted just four days—we arrived in Jerusalem just before Shabbat, spent Sunday night in Haifa, and departed Israel at midnight on Monday. It was exhausting and extremely fulfilling. Most of all, it was marked by incredible contrasts, which, to those who have experienced Israel, comes as no surprise at all.

On our arrival shortly before the start of Shabbat, our group, accompanied by a guide and an armed guard, walked to the Western Wall, the Kotel. What would be an important part of any visit to Jerusalem took on an added significance, as the Temple Mount, standing just above the Western Wall, had been the focus of violence, with wild incitement, political posturing, and a remarkable episode of journalistic sloppiness (the New York Times reported, and then quickly modified, a story falsely stating that historians questioned whether the first or second Jewish Temples ever stood on the Mount.) In my three previous trips to Israel, that walk was considerably shorter, passing through the Shuq—the Arab market in the Old City. This time, we carefully skirted the Shuq and arrived at the Western Wall Plaza through a safe route. Families and school kids were out, but whether it was the approaching Shabbat or the “situation,” the Jewish Quarter was quieter than I had seen before. The Kotel itself was more or less the same as I had previously experienced it, except that there were far fewer tourists, noticeable because they of the absence of kippot distributed by attendants in the plaza. Later in the visit, people asked about how many were at the Wall, apparently because, other than on Shabbat, people have been staying away out of fear.

The next morning, we attended services at w a very small Orthodox synagogue, whose members were mostly American olim (immigrants), located just outside the old City. The shul, well over 100 years old, had traditional Ashkenazic Orthodox services, with a curious mixture of kids chanting with Israeli accents and others whose Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation was just like my grandfather’s. Despite my day school upbringing, I found it somewhat hard to keep up and find my place in the Siddur. But, what was most memorable was when we came to a line in the Kiddusha during the Amida prayer in the morning service. It’s a line not included in the Reform Movement’s siddur, but it had very special resonance to me that day: תשכון תתגדל ותתקדש בתוד ירושלים עירד Tishkon titkadosh vtitkadosh b’toch Yerushalim eerchah—“Be endured and sanctified in the midst of Jerusalem, Your city.” As the congregation sang that line I looked out a window and saw the walls of the Old City just a few hundred yards away. And I thought, this is a very, very special place—yet while it is a source of holiness, it is, sadly, not an Ir-Shalom, a city of Peace.

Later that night, we met Israelis personally affected by the recent violence. First, Karen, widow of Richard Lakin. As the media has widely reported, Richard and Karen immigrated from the US in the 70s. Richard was an educator, school principal, author; he had been a freedom rider in the 60s. He tutored Jews and Arabs alike, and was committed to peaceful co-existence. His Facebook home page showed a Jew and an Arab under a banner promoting religious coexistence. Ten days before we met Karen, Richard was shot in the head and his internal organs sliced in half by an Arab terrorist on a bus, returning from a routine doctor’s appointment.

As we met Karen, Richard lay in a coma at Hadassah’s Ein Keren Medical Center a few miles away. Karen showed incredible fortitude, talking about Richard—her best friend—and their two children and grandchildren; the visits from media and celebrities, such as US General Secretary Ban. She told us about Richard’s life work, and the Jewish and Muslim students they tutored in English. She told us about the wonderful care Richard was receiving at Hadassah, about the incredible kindness shown to them by the Chief Nurse, an Israeli Arab whose son Richard tutored. She expressed dismay at how recent events had been portrayed in the media, failing to recognize the mindless, murderous actions on innocent victims, like Richard. She recounted her granddaughter’s words, echoing Richard’s philosophy, that there are many possible responses to what is going on, but one of them is not hate. Her message to us—show you care by staying informed and learning the truth. Richard Lakin personified what was most admirable about Israel, answering the prophetic call of Judaism to pursue justice and to be a light unto the nations. His senseless murder—he succumbed to multiple organ failures a day after we returned to Boston—is unjustifiable evil.

Then we met Dr. Talia Lebanon, head of the Israeli Trauma Coalition, and a member of her staff. They were accompanied by two religious Jewish women, residents of the Old City, whose neighbors had been victims of stabbings. One of the most underreported stories about Israel is the psychic trauma recent events have caused. Whole regions of the country suffer from post-traumatic stress condition. Talia described one incident in the Old City: A family, the neighbors of one of the women we met that night, heard a scream from the street. The eldest daughter said, “Abba (Daddy), maybe you should see what’s wrong.” As the family looked on from their rooftop terrace, the father went down into the street and was stabbed to death. The trauma this family experienced is unimaginable; as is the guilt this poor daughter bears for her father’s murder. Whether it is the intention of these despicable acts of terrorism or not, a result of this violence has been to shatter coexistence. One of these religious women has lived next to Arab neighbors for over 3 decades. The Arab women were her friends. Now, fear permeates the neighborhood.

The work that Talia and her team of professional therapists do to help these families and dozens like them (and hundreds in the past) is extraordinary. But, from their faces, their tones, it is taking a toll on them (and many other Israelis no doubt, as well). Yet, they persist, and the braveness of these Israelis, their incredible composure, their resilience, is inspiring.

The next morning, Sunday, we visited the Hadassah Mount Scopus Medical Center. Set among an Arab Section of Jerusalem, the hospital was the site of a massacre of Jewish doctors and nurses during the 1948 War, reopened after the Six Day War, and now treats a broad section of the community, Israeli Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians from the territories.

One of the victims who was being treated at Mount Scopus was a 13-year old Israeli boy who was stabbed and nearly killed by two Arab youth, one of whom was killed by Israeli security forces on the scene the other was successfully treated in the same Emergency Room as the Israeli boy. His parents told us that their son had left to go to the store and was attacked while riding a bicycle in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev. He was taken to the hospital in life-threatening condition, placed in an induced coma and connected to a respirator.

We met the boys’ surgeon, Dr. Ahmed Eid, head of Surgery at Mount Scopus. Dr. Eid is an Israeli Arab. He trained to be a transplant surgeon, but has been devoting more time recently to treating victims of stabbings and gunshots. Dr. Edi told us that the boy only survived because of his youth and strength. (Thankfully, a week after we came home, he was released from the hospital, but still faces a long recovery).

We also met Dr. Osnat Levzion-Korach, the dynamic Director of Hadassah’s Mount Scopus Hospital, who gave us a tour of the hospital’s Emergency Department and showed us the improvised trauma room the ER staff had assembled in recent weeks. The ER doctors we met are practicing state-of-the-art trauma medicine in a 1950’s era facility. Among many lessons I derived from my short trip to Israel, was the tremendous admiration for the generations of Jewish women throughout the world who have supported Hadassah.

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Towards the end of our short stay, we visited our sister city Haifa, for a very different perspective. We met the legendary mayor, Yona Yahav, who told us about how signs spontaneously began to appear throughout the city in Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian, saying “Arabs and Jews refuse to be enemies.” We met the leaders of University of Haifa, including President and former El Al CEO, Amos Shapira, and Executive Committee Chair and former Director of Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, who told us about a tent that was erected in the middle of the campus so Jews, Druze and Muslims could speak openly about the current situation. The tensions we saw in Israel were largely absent from Haifa’s campus. Religious Muslim women and IDF officers were sitting and learning in the same classroom.

We also visited Horim Bamercaz, The Parents at the Center, an incredible project of the Boston-Haifa connection, where at-risk parents from poorer neighborhoods of Haifa come together and receive support and mentoring from volunteers and professionals.

If anything gave me hope during our visit, it was seeing the children of Haifa at play and meeting some of their mothers, including recent immigrants from Ukraine, an Orthodox single woman who had to receive permission from her rebbe to participate in the program, and an Israeli Arab, who told the story, through an interpreter, of how during last summer’s Gaza war, she and other Arab mothers kept their kids home from the center until the Jewish Israeli mothers called her up and urged her to come back. She related that the Jewish woman implored her to return because they missed her and her children and the center was not the same without them. So, this fall, when Israel was riven by knifings and assaults, she didn’t really think about keeping her child at home.

By the end of our short trip, there were signs that, maybe the violence had peaked. Unfortunately, this was far from true, as the violence has continued and the death toll continues to mount. As a tragic coda there was the tragic news of yet another Massachusetts native, 18-year old Ezra Schwartz, A”H, who was murdered by gunfire as he was returning from a volunteer outing. His burial was on November 22nd in Sharon. This is heartbreaking.

I close by quoting a recent blog post published in the Times of Israel, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/please-tell-us-we-arent-alone/. The blogger, a young American woman who has made Aliyah to Israel, implores us that “we need to know we aren’t alone – that you’re listening. That our lives matter too. Please – reach out to us even if you disagree with our government — push past that to where we are huddled and trembling and tell us you see us and that you care and that we are not alone.”

In the face of so much despair, of so much violence, this may be all we can do—to let Israel and her people know we care.

Scott Birnbaum – Vice-President, Temple Shalom

 

Becoming Jacob’s Ladder

Our Torah portion this Shabbat, Parashat Vayetzei, opens with Jacob beating a hasty exit from his family’s house.  We know exactly why Jacob left home so hastily. He was fleeing the wrath of his slightly older, twin brother Esau. In last week’s portion, Jaabat_adom_ladder_normalcob stole Esau’s birthright as first-born by tricking their father Isaac into bestowing the blessing upon him. Hence our portion opens with Jacob fleeing home. In one of the most dramatic passages in all of Torah, the scene of Jacob’s first night away from home, he lies down for the night in a strange place. He dreams a dream that still captivates our imagination to this day. He envisions a ladder stretching from heaven to earth, upon which angels of God are descending and ascending. The dream seemingly spooks Jacob, who awakens with a start, as he comes to recognize the presence of God in his life.

There is so much to say about this powerful story and its many lessons. In the shadow of the horrific events of this past week, I am drawn to focus on Jacob’s reality, namely that Jacob is fleeing for his life, fearing what Esau might do to him. We can understand Jacob’s fear of Esau, and we can understand Esau’s bitterness. In one respect, Jacob’s journey is to go and find himself, before he can return home to become the person and the patriarch he is meant to be.  We all take this journey. For some it’s literal leaving. For others it’s about more of an intellectual or spiritual trek.

In this week’s portion, Jacob becomes a refugee, leaving behind all he has known, from all that is familiar. We have been hearing a great deal about refugees in recent months and years.  It is hard for me not to see some connection between our portion, and the amped-up discussion about the refugees of our day. There can be no doubt that last Friday’s horrific attacks in Paris have heightened anxiety levels and concerns about resettlement of the growing number of refugees, from Syria, the Sudan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is crucial for the leaders of nations in which these refugees seek asylum to carefully screen those who come seeking refuge.  Yet we are seeing these refugees turned into a political football.

yom_hashoah_candleIn a world in which the horrors of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks around the globe are rarely far from our consciousness, it is understandable that concerns are being raised about would-be terrorists using the cover of legitimate refugees to gain access to countries and cities in which their intent is to murder innocent people and wreak havoc and destruction to advance their perverted world-view.  Providing strong safeguards and caution in protecting their citizens is the responsibility of the leaders of every nation. Yet, there is also a broader responsibility. There is a common, humanitarian responsibility we all share towards those fleeing for their lives. We must not ignore that these same terrorists have turned their wrath and destructive impulses upon their “brothers and sisters.”

In our portion, as Jacob is jarred by his dream on that fateful first night of his journey, he takes some comfort in God’s assurance, “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)  The overwhelming majority of the refugees of our day want the same assurance. For me, this is where the ladder of which Jacob dreamt comes in.  That ladder represented a bridge between heaven and rainbow20bridgeearth, between the Divine and our human realm.  It is vital that, even as we take extra precautions to see to the safety of our own citizens, we also build that ladder.  We must then become the beings who descend and ascend that ladder. We must become the representatives of that higher moral, humanitarian responsibility to care for our fellow human beings when their lives are endangered, or they have nowhere to turn. Like our father Jacob, the refugees of today want to know they are not alone as they undertake a journey to uncertainty.

We must fight the evil of ISIS and the terrorists they inspire. At the same time, let us not lose sight of the reality that the refugees fleeing for safety want to feel God’s presence. We can be that presence.  Fighting the evil cannot deter us from being the ladder which can bridge heaven and earth, and bringing those seeking safety to a sense of the security Jacob felt as he continues his journey from the spot of his dream.

Shabbat Shalom!

Siblings and Sibling Rivalry: Parashat Toldot

In many ways, Genesis is the most accessible book in Torah.  The book surely contains stories which challenge credulity. It is, nonetheless, a very real book.  As my teacher, Rabbi Norman Cohen teaches, Genesis is fundamentally a book about families and relationships within those families.  In one of the several books he has written about Genesis, Self Struggle & Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives (Jewish Lights, 1996), Dr. Cohen unfolds how the families in Genesis mirror so many of the dimensions and conflicts we encounter within our own family relationships and experiences.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9) brings us to the story of the birth Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau.  Even in-utero, a hint is offered that these two children will be a challenging duo as we read:

“Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with Adonai on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and Adonai responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. However, the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of Adonai, and Adonai answered her,

“Two nations are in your womb,

Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;

One people shall be mightier than the other,

And the older shall serve the younger.”  (Genesis 25:20-23)

The theme of sibling rivalry prevails throughout the book of Genesis. Think about it. We’ve already read the stories of Cain and Abel, Ishamel and Isaac, and now Jacob and Esau. In a few short weeks we will read of Joseph and his brothers. Each set of siblings presents something of challenges which siblings have in the relationships within the constellation we know as the family.

sacksEarlier this week I was fortunate to be included in a group of Jewish and Christian clergy who were brought together by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston and the Harvard Divinity School for a presentation by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.  We were invited to come hear Rabbi Sacks discuss his most recent book, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken Books, 2015).  While I have read a number of Rabbi Sacks’ earlier works, I had not yet read this one. (I am now!) Neither have I ever had the privilege of hearing him in person. His presentation offered a powerful, inspiring and insightful analysis of the world in which we live and religion’s use and misuse in our world. I came away believing that his is an important voice in our time when we see all too many challenging misuses of religion, and the teachings of religious traditions.

Both in his talk, and the book, Rabbi Sacks focuses on this week’s Torah portion as a place to focus in understanding our world and its troubles. Rabbi Sacks suggests that over the course of the book of Genesis, we are exposed to a dynamic which has long been the focus of examination through the work of students of human psychology such as Sigmund Freud and Rene Girard: the tension within families, most especially the tension between siblings.  Citing Girard, Sacks writes: “Violence is born in what [Girard] calls mimetic desire. Mimetic desire is wanting what someone else has because they have it.” (Not in the Name, pg 87) Sacks goes on to suggest that this desire is not solely manifesting in wanting what someone else has, but is also an expression of “wanting to be what someone else is. Desiring ‘this man’s art, and that man’s scope,’ we wish we were them . . . [This] often leads to violence.” (page 88)

Sacks leads the reader through an examination of the Biblical sibling relationships mentioned above as a way of understanding how it is that we live in a world in which the three Abrahamic monotheistic faiths, which are in essence, sibling faiths, are so at odds. Using the Biblical tales as a backdrop against which to examine human history, and in particular the role of religion in that history, Sacks offers his reader a window into understanding why these relationships are so challenging in today’s world. He also offers suggestions for how we might change the dynamic by reclaiming religion from those who misuse it in the name of furthering their perverted goals of power and domination.

In our Torah portion this week we enter a new phase of these dynamics as they unfold in the story of our people, soon to be known as Yisrael, as in weeks to come Jacob will face his conflicted relationship with Esau, and might we say, God. I’ll be spending some of my Shabbat reading Sacks as I seek to uncover new insights from our ancient story as well as sustenance for facing the challenges of the world in which we live, towards which I turn my attention anew as a new week dawns.

Shabbat Shalom!

Parashat Chayei Sarah: The Children of Abraham

SHI LogoI’m just wrapping up six days in Orlando, Florida. It’s a land of so much make believe, none of which I saw. My time in Orlando began with three days of study and reflection with Rabbinic colleagues who have participated in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. The theme of our learning was “Jewish Values and the Encounter With the Other: Muslims, Christians and Jews in the 21st Century.” Through hevruta text study and enlightening teaching from our Hartman scholars, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, Susannah Heschel and Yossi Klein Halevi, our eyes, minds and souls were opened to new ways to view our engagement with our Christian and Muslim neighbors. One highlight of our retreat was learning about the Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI). As one of key drivers of this Initiative, Yossi shared the vision, challenges and rewards of the work. He also brought one of the MLI participants to meet with us and share his own journey to participation in this courageous and important venture. Through the MLI, Hartman invites North American Muslim scholars and leaders to come to its campus in Jerusalem for two extended retreats and to engage in several months of online learning.  One goal of MLI is to help participants learn about Judaism and the place of Israel in our Jewish history and narrative.  (You can learn more here: http://www.timesofisrael.com/the-partnership-how-a-bold-american-imam-and-his-skeptical-israeli-host-bridged-the-muslim-jewish-chasm/)

Participants in MLI are not asked to check their own history, nor their narrative at the gates of the Hartman campus. The learning and exchanges are challenging. For some, participation has led to death threats. For others suspicions of their place in their own community is questioned. For Muslims, attending a program in a Zionist-oriented, pro-Israel institute is a risk.  However, there is also risk for the Jewish teachers and leaders who boldly shaped and now lead this program. A cornerstone of the program is the hope that Jews and Muslims might be better prepared to learn with one another and work together in building a just and better world as we live our lives in the North American communities we call home.

Especially against the backdrop of last year’s war with Hamas in Gaza, and this Fall’s wave of terror attacks in Israel, the conversation and relationships are constantly being tested. Yet the trust and appreciation the participants have built in the MLI experience allows for open and frank expression in the context of relationship.

Just before my departure from Biennial I sat with a small group of rabbis who participated in the Hartman retreat earlier this stacked_logoweek, as we gathered with one of the MLI participants who’d come to Orlando to speak at the URJ Biennial.  Maggie, a Muslim leader from Washington, DC, wanted to meet some Hartman rabbis and we were eager to meet her. She shared her story with us, along with some of what she feels she has learned through participating in the MLI. We had many questions. It was quite a lively conversation, one which I was reluctant to leave early. Alas, I had a plane to catch. My dear friend, Rabbi Arnie Gluck, explained to Maggie that in our Torah portion this Shabbat, we read of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac reuniting to bury their father together: This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife.” (Genesis 25:7-10) Arnie expressed the hope that perhaps by working together, along with our teachers at the Hartman Institute, we might bring the children Abraham together. As I got up to go, I added, “Before we bury too many more of the children of Ishmael and Isaac.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Finding My Hineini – Parashat Vayera

It’s just over two years since I first ventured into the realm of Mindfulness meditation. At the outset, I didn’t really know that’s where I was headed. I’d signed up for a 5-day Retreat at Kripalu in Stockbridge entitled Whole Self Well-Being. One important component turned out to be meditation. It opened a door through which I have continued to walk ever since. Though I’d never have anticipated it, I found myself drawn to return to Kripalu for two more 5-day retreats, each specifically focusing on meditation. My first year found me doing lots of “reading about” with sporadic, occasionally consistent practice. Since my third retreat in August, I find that hardly a day goes by in which I do not “sit.” Sometimes it’s just for a few minutes. At other times I sit for 20-30 minutes. In so many ways, it’s a surprise to me that this practice speaks to me. But it’s a most welcome surprise.

One of the lessons that my various teachers have shared has to do with allowing your focus to return again and again to the breath. Both Jack Kornfield (January 2014), and Jonathan Foust (August 2015) reminded us again and again, thinking will happen. Notice it, and let it go. I get that. Sometimes I am even able to do it.

One morning, earlier this week, I was sitting on my cushion, listening to the recorded voice guide me through my morning sit. As often happens, my mind does drift into thinking. Most often the focus is on the day ahead and what I have to accomplish. I try to let it go in the moment and return to my breath. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. On this occasion my thinking drifted to our Torah portion for this Shabbat, Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18-22). Without a doubt, it’s one of the most pregnant of Torah portions, with story after story clamoring for our attention. I was even wondering what I might share in this post. “Eric,” I reminded myself – “breath. Thinking and writing is for later.” Then it happened. My mind locked on a single word from our portion, Hineini.

Hineini is among the most potent words in our library of stories we call Torah. Hineini – “here I am” (if you prefer, “I am here.) It’s the word Abraham speaks to God in response to God’s call at the opening of Genesis 22, surely one of the most challenging chapters in all of Torah, what tradition knows as Akeidat Yitzchak– ”the Binding of Isaac.” Abraham’s Hineini is understood by generation after generation of readers and commentators as a sign of our Patriarch’s commitment and preparedness to respond to God’s call, “Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. God said, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Hineini – Here I am.” God said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah . . .” (Gen. 22:1-2)

As I sat on my cushion, my mind was not focused on Abraham. My mind locked onto the power of Hineini, how that single word, which time and again, draws our attention to one or another Biblical character’s “aha” moment of presence and response. My teacher, Rabbi Norman J. Cohen has written an incredibly powerful book, Hineini In Our Lives (Jewish Lights, 2003) in which he unpacks the fourteen instances in which there is a Hineini moment/response in Torah. He also invites a host of contemporary leaders to share something about the meaning of Hineini from their experience. It’s a great read!

I have had my share of Hineini moments. Sitting on my cushion one morning this week, such a moment came. It was not because of some powerful experience or event. It wasn’t from study of a text and a breakthrough. It wasn’t a powerful life moment such as the birth of a child or the like. It was simply my awakening, my awareness, my breathing. I realized that Hineini is the ultimate in mindfulness focus. I am here! Here I am! I am present . . . in this moment. The sitting, the breathing, and the pause between the notes of my life help me be better prepared to present in whatever my day will bring. Shabbat is upon us – Hineini!

Shabbat Shalom!

Parashat Lech L’cha – “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.” (Genesis 13:9)

It must have been around 10 or 12 years ago. I was studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for the first time. It had been years since I had spent any significant free time in and around Jerusalem and I asked friends for ideas of off-the-beaten-path sites I might check out. One friend told me about a relatively new museum which had been created in a building which had once marked the boundary between Jerusalem’s New City, what had been for a long time the “no-man’s land territory” between Israel and Jordan, and East Jerusalem which prior to 1967 was ruled by the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. The building, known as Beyt Turgeman,

Beyt Turgeman as it looks today

which still sits on the line between East Jerusalem and the newer parts of the city, had been turned into “Museum on the Seam.” With rough directions in hand, I set out on foot to find the place. As I wandered more deeply into parts of East Jerusalem than I had visited in decades, I began to wonder if I was lost. I even asked directions. Soon enough I found myself standing in front of the “Museum on the Seam Line” as the banner outside proclaimed.

The next few hours that I spent at the museum (it is not, I should note, a terribly big place) were eye-opening and thought provoking. What I learned over the course of my time during that first (but not last) visit was that the creators of this new museum meant to use the building’s location and history to challenge visitors to confront the reality of different groups sharing space and/or living in close proximity to one another.

MuseumFrontJust inside the entrance, alongside the ticket kiosk, was a large display featuring the text from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Lech L’cha describing the tension between Abram and his nephew, Lot over whose flocks had the right to graze on which fields. We read: “From Egypt, Abram went up into the Negeb, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with Lot . . . . Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle . . . Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” (Genesis 13:1, 5-9)

The Museum’s main exhibit, which flowed from this dramatic passage from Genesis proceeded to challenge a visitor’s perception and understanding of co-existence, which remains a major theme in the Museum on the Seam to this day. You can make a virtual visit here: http://www.coexistence.art.museum/Coex/Index.asp

Living as we do, in times of incredible tension, and violence, which challenge the very notion of co-existence, it strikes me that this episode from our portion, and the events about which we are hearing on a daily basis, bespeak the ongoing relevance of the story of Abram and Lot. Clearly there are no simple answers to the current conflict. It’s not as simple as Abram telling Lot he can take his choice and Abram will go in the direction Lot does not choose.

Over the years, Museum on the Seam has become a place to which I return again and again. The lessons it teaches are more far-reaching than the (not-so) simple question of territory. In a world in which lines and boundaries are constantly in flux and changing, the questions, challenges and issues of co-existence laid out in our portion grower sharper and even more challenging as time passes. If nothing else, we need to summon the wisdom of our Patriarch Abram, and at least consider the implications of his words to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.”

Shabbat Shalom!

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