A Loosening of Leopards

I had the privilege of welcoming Koach Baruch Frazier and Dove Kent to Judea Reform Congregation on Friday, January 12, 2018. My framing remarks…

A tweet that shows up in my feed every so often these days says something like this: “Have you ever wondered what you would have done during the Civil Rights era? Stop wondering; you’re doing it.”

It is in that spirit that our Adult Education and Social Action Committees conceived of this evening’s program, which is intended less to reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr’s accomplishments than to continue his unfinished work. Dove Kent and Koach Baruch Frazier are here tonight to challenge us, to push us, perhaps to make us uncomfortable. Continue reading

Kesharim

Last week we looked at Joseph’s question of his brothers, avichem hazaken, ha’odenu chai? Is the elderly father of whom you spoke still alive? And using a quirk of the sentence structure as the hook on which to hang our lesson, we talked about the difference between merely living and being truly alive. Our Tradition names that quality, that animating force that turns living into Life, chiyut. I suggested that when we cultivate an awareness of the chiyut around us and within us, we grow stronger, kinder, more loving, more grounded…we find peace within and generate peace all around. Continue reading

Od Avinu Chai

Isaac Bashevis Singer, in an interview granted around the time of his 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature, said this about why he wrote in Yiddish, a language with an ever-shrinking pool of speakers and readers: “The language is ailing, yes. But in Jewish history, the distance between sickness and death can be a long, long time.”

So there’s dying, and then there’s dead. And on the flip side, there’s living, and there’s alive. This week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, includes a curious exchange between Joseph and his brothers (Gen 43:27-28) which viewed through the lens of our Tradition, illuminates this point. Hearing the words this year, I find myself reflecting on the question, “In what ways am I merely living, and in what ways am I truly alive? Continue reading

Vigil on the Fifth Anniversary of Newtown

“After the Newtown shootings”

God, let me cry on Your shoulder.
Rock me like a colicky baby.
Promise me You won’t forget

each of Your perfect reflections
killed today. Promise me
You won’t let me forget, either.

I’m hollow, stricken like a bell.
Make of my emptiness a channel
for Your boundless compassion.

Soothe the children who witnessed
things no child should see,
the teachers who tried to protect them

but couldn’t, the parents
who are torn apart with grief,
who will never kiss their beloveds again.

Strengthen the hands and hearts
of Your servants tasked with caring
for those wounded in body and spirit.

Help us to find meaning
In the tiny lights we kindle tonight.
Help us to trust

that our reserves of hope
and healing are enough
to carry us through.

We are in Your hands: put us to work.
Ignite in us the unquenchable yearning
to reshape our world

so that violence against children
never happens again, anywhere.
We are Your grieving heart.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s poem, written on the day of the Sandy Hook massacre, says everything there is to say about why Jews care about gun violence prevention.

One line, really, says everything there is to say: “each of Your perfect reflections.” Those precious children, those loving teachers who died that day, and every one of the victims of gun violence who died before or since (can you believe we’re talking about “since,” and that the number is 150,000 souls?), all are God’s perfect reflections. The very first chapter of our sacred scripture says it so clearly: “b’tzelem elohim bara oto — in the Divine Image did God create them.”

To say that human beings are created in God’s image, Rabbi Irving Greenberg teaches, is to say that each one of us is infinitely worthy, entirely unique, and of equal value to every other person. Gun violence negates every one of those claims, turning perfect reflections of God’s presence into mind-numbing, heart-breaking statistics, stripped of their worth, deemed expendable by those who worship at the altar of the NRA.

Kol ham’abed nefesh achat k’ilu ibed olam, v’chol ham’kayyem nefesh achat k’ilu kiyyem olam —  “Whoever destroys a life, it is considered as if they destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if they saved an entire world” (M. San 4:5).

Guns destroy lives in so many ways: the bodies they shred; the memories they scar; the families they tear apart. In truth, every death from gun violence destroys entire worlds, and the steady march of deaths destroys the universe, again and again and again.

May this vigil, and the hundreds of others happening around the country tonight and in the coming days, be more than an expression of “thoughts and prayers.” May the light of the candles illumine the Divine Presence in each of us, and may the knowledge we are all God’s perfect reflections spur us to action. May we save lives, and thus save worlds.

Amen.

“A Name for Ourselves”

Judea Reform Congregation, Parashat Noach

Four miles to the east of where we learn and pray tonight, in the Hayti neighborhood, sits a field littered with the concrete slabs of a public housing project. From 1967 until 2007 Fayette Place stood, before it was bought by developers, razed to the ground, and then left waiting for market conditions that never arrived.

Here and there, a few steps survived the wrecking ball. My colleague, Rev. William Lucas has called them, poetically and tragically, “the steps to nowhere.” That image came to mind this week as I studied parashat noach, and specifically the eleventh chapter of Genesis, where we read the story of the Tower of Babel. I imagine the great ziggurats, Mesopotamian fortress-temples which inspired the story of the tower, after they’d crumbled but before they’d been completely dismantled or covered over by the sands of time. It must have been something, to see those ruins, those steps to nowhere. Continue reading

Let us make humankind: the power to imagine

I was up before dawn today. Sitting in my living room, I watched the yahrzeit candle burn. For a few minutes I thought about the people whose lives are conjured up whenever I light one. They are the same people whose names I will review this afternoon at yizkor, and each name will stir up memories. What would they make of all of this? What would they think about my being a rabbi? What would they think about my being a reform rabbi? What would they make of my life, my family, of this world?

The same candle points me in the other direction, too. Who will remember me? How will I be remembered? Will yahrzeit candles still burn in Jewish homes on Yom Kippur, and in synagogues? What will the people who kindle the flame be thinking as they look back? Pre-dawn thoughts in my living room on this day of kapparah and teshuvah, healing and homecoming. Continue reading

Let us make humankind: being God’s image

Welcome
Welcome
Welcome
To this great arena
Durham, North Carolina
In the heart of the research triangle

We’ve come to this particular place tonight,
Because we gotta look at things from every angle
We need some answers to some complicated questions
If we’re going to get it right.

With those words does Randy Newman kick off his current release, Dark Matter. And if I’d commissioned the Grammy- and Oscar-winning composer to craft a song for Judea Reform Congregation on kol nidrei night, I couldn’t have asked for a better beginning.

That is my hope for this night of nights, and for the day of days that follows: that we come together in our diversity and complexity, ask the right questions, and come, with humility and grace, to “getting it right.” Continue reading

Let us make humankind: the interdependence of all beings (Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5778)

Olam chesed yibaneh. The world is built with chesed, Lovingkindness. Last night, we studied a text which playfully gave Lovingkindness – the angel named “Lovingkindness,” that is – credit for building us, inasmuch as she took our side in the celestial debate over whether humankind should be created. This morning, we’ll explore another midrash on the phrase na’aseh adam b’tzalmeinu kid’muteinu, less fanciful and, in some ways, more rooted in the value of chesed. Continue reading

Let us make humankind: Love, Truth, Justice, and Peace

v’al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, v’imru amen…

Did you catch that little change in the text? In our new prayer book, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, “all who dwell on earth,” joins aleinu v’al kol yisra’el, “us, [and] all Israel,” in the prayer for peace. Many Reform Jews have been adding that phrase for some time, editing the written words before them on the fly. With our new machzor, the printed page has at last caught up with what is increasingly our theology, and our practice.

The rationale is well-stated in the note at the bottom of the page: “What threatens our world today is…the burning question of the extent to which individuals throughout the world choose particularistic allegiance to their tribe alone rather than universalistic responsibility to the rest of humankind.” In the face of that threat, how can we let particularistic allegiance have the last, indeed the only, word as we pray for peace? We simply cannot, and I am grateful for this innovation in our prayer book.

Hayom Harat Olam, we say of this day: “today the world is born anew.” Among the many things that Rosh Hashanah is, it is understood by our tradition to be the anniversary of the world’s coming into being. Five thousand, seven hundred seventy-eight years ago today – so the Rabbis say – a six-day period of creativity culminated with the fashioning of humanity, pinnacle of God’s Creation. In splendid solitude, God spoke this world into being, took stock, pronounced it good, and then rested. It’s quite a story! Continue reading

Did you ask a good question?

Throughout my career as a rabbi, I’ve loved sharing the inadvertent wisdom of Isaac Rabi’s mother, and encouraging students to “ask a good question.” How nice to get to offer a d’var torah at URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy during the week when our value was sakranut – “curiosity!” This, more or less, is what I said…

This afternoon at B’nai Mitzvah tutoring, a few kids were chanting ashrei, one of my favorite psalms. It includes a verse which goes like this: gadol adonai umehulal m’od, v’lig’dulato ein cheker. Which translates as, “God is huge, and so worthy of praise; God’s vastness cannot be measured.”

On that verse, a great commentator named David Kimchi once wrote, “Since God’s vastness is beyond measurement, and God cannot be fully understood, all we can do is acknowledge the vastness and praise it, each of us as best we can.”

Now, Kimchi was a great Torah commentator with a better head for Hebrew than almost anyone….but his approach to God’s vastness is out of place in a synagogue full of scientists. Beyond measurement, you say? Challenge accepted!

Our sakranut, our curiosity, doesn’t allow us to throw up our hands and say “Oh well, it’s really, really big, and that’s as specific as we can get.” We want to measure it with precision, and then take that measurement again, and again, to confirm our findings. Our curiosity compels us to ask, to seek, to know.

It was just that sort of curiosity that compelled Dr. Isidore Isaac Rabi. Dr. Rabi, a physicist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944. His work laid the foundation for the inventions of the atomic clock, the laser, and MRI machines, among other things. And Dr. Rabi was once asked why he became a scientist. This is what he said:

”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me become a scientist!’

We’ve got a beautiful Shabbat ahead of us, and then, for many of us, a trip home. All of us – Greg and Barak, your teachers, your counselors, your Rabbis and Cantor, everyone who invests their time and energy in Sci-Tech – wants you to go home having learned much. But even more than that, we want you to go home curious. We want you to ask good questions.