This was my D'var Torah on Shabbat morning, Saturday, January 29, on Parashat Mishpatim.
When I was trying to decide whether to apply to rabbinical school, as a senior in college, I gave myself an ultimatum: I would not apply until I was putting on tefillin every day. Tefilllin are basically mezuzas but for the body -- leather boxes with small scrolls of Torah text inside, attached to straps, that we place and wrap around one arm and the forehead in the morning when it’s not Shabbat.
Tefillin is a practice that is distinctively Jewish, and distinct even among Jewish practices. If mezuzas are uniquely Jewish, tefillin is even beyond that. It’s unusual and not a lot of Jews do it outside of Orthodox environments. It just felt weird to me, and I was having trouble making it a regular personal practice. Even after a full year in Israel at the Seminary, going to minyan regularly in the morning for the first time in my life, putting on tefillin there -- still, doing it on my own, I couldn’t get there.
And I had made that my test for myself about my identity as a Jew obligated to halacha, to traditional Jewish law as a duty. I was already quite strict about Shabbat; for some reason that was no problem. But tefillin became for me a litmus test of my self-image and my right to present myself as a future Conservative rabbi. I wonder what your thing is, the Jewish practice or ritual or words that seems like you’re supposed to buy but it’s hard for you?
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate tefillin and the symbolism and ideas behind it -- still it remained at arm’s length, hard to wrap on my actual arm. But I really wanted to go to JTS (well, I really wanted to be finished going to JTS), so it was quite the cognitive and spiritual dissonance. I called the dean’s office to schedule my preliminary interview with one of the team, and something about just that interaction spooked me. I found some excuse to cancel so I could reschedule with the dean himself, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, whom I had met a few times. I thought if I talked to him and told him where I was, he’d respond in the right way, whatever that would be.
There is a phrase in the parasha this morning that comes to mind about this, and it’s a favorite when it comes to questions of Jewish observance. We quote: na’aseh v’nishma. We will do and we will hear. It’s usually explained as first you commit to a mitzvah, then you learn more about what you’re doing. You might think the other way makes more sense, study something before you commit to it -- but no, na’aseh v’nishma. Take a leap of faith first. The midrash praises B’nai Yisrael for taking that leap of faith at Mt. Sinai, saying na’aseh v’nishma knowing that compared to everything else they knew before, Torah would be weird to them a lot of the time. It would be like tefillin everywhere.
With a lot of other things in my Jewish path, like Shabbat and kashrut, I did a lot of na’aseh v’nishma that way. But it didn’t work for me with tefillin. I’ll pick up the tefillin story in Rabbi Tucker’s office -- but first we need to reexamine na’aseh v’nishma.
Here’s the context for the phrase. Before the Ten Commandments, Moshe brings God’s offer of a covenant in a general sense, and all the people say: What God has said so far about that, we will do. Na’aseh. Then they hear the Ten Commandments directly from God, and Moshe gets all of the mishpatim, the first big set of very detailed laws, and he tells them the law out loud, and the people say: All the words that Adonai has spoken we will do. Na’aseh.
Then after that Moshe sets up a big sacrificial meal and a ritual with blood, and Moshe reads the laws again to them out of the Book of the Covenant, as though to say: Do you really mean it? And they say: Everything that Adonai has spoken, we will do and we will hear -- na’aseh v’nishma. Then Moshe sprinkles blood over all of them, just to make sure, and says: All right, this is really a covenant now.
That’s where na’aseh v’nishma is in the Torah. So, a couple of things. First, tefillin seems a little less weird in comparison to sprinkling blood on absolutely everyone. Second, it’s clear that na’aseh v’nishma was not a right-off-the-bat leap of faith, like sure we’ll do this and we can talk about it more as we go along. It took three tries just to get to na’aseh v’nishma. A lot of repeating of the people’s commitment, and of course forty days later it didn’t matter anyway, because -- Golden Calf.
So I want to offer a slightly different way of looking at na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and then we will listen. I want to look at this through a lens from a modern rav named Tina Fey, master teacher of comedy improvisation. Na’aseh v’nishma: Meet the Rule of Yes-And.
In improv, you’ve got two or more people creating a scene together, and one person starts. Maybe that person -- call them Moshe if you want -- makes up a premise in their head or maybe it comes from the audience.
Tina Fey writes [in her book Bossypants]: The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES... This means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You [insert word I can’t say in shul]!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
Rabbi Jon’s commentary: This first back-and-forth agreement, preliminary and not completely formed, is Na’aseh. We’re going to be in this scene together and create from here together.
Back to Tina: The second rule of improvisation is YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah...” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures”, or “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.
[Still Tina:] To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute... [and] MAKE STATEMENTS; Don’t ask questions all the time. ...Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents...I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup...
Thanks Tina. I say that the ideas of YES-AND, and THERE ARE NO MISTAKES ONLY OPPORTUNITIES, that’s v’nishma. I’ll agree to what you start with, and then we will agree on a next thing, and we will each keep listening, accepting what the other person brings and then building on that.
The “Yes-and” dynamic is a covenant. It begins and deepens a bond between two people that generates and solidifies the obligations between them around something specific they both are invested in up to a point. Both parties are the do-er, the listener, the responder -- and hopefully the scene keeps going.
So let’s apply this back to me and my tefillin, and then to Beth Abraham.
I flew down to New York for my preliminary interview and told Rabbi Tucker the truth about me and tefillin. He didn’t say no, you can’t be a rabbi. He didn’t even do the first kind of na’aseh v’nishma -- Well, Jon, what about just putting on tefillin for a few weeks, seeing how it affects you, and call me back after that? Instead he did this other version of na’aseh v’nishma. Yes-and. He accepted where I was. He didn’t argue with me. I remember him saying: What about thinking about it this way. Have you thought about it that way. How about it’s not an external commandment. It’s not for God, it’s for you, because it helps you think about your day ahead or the actions from your arm or your head. He made a number of suggestions, and then he left the ball in my court, to continue to apply if I wanted to.
Obviously I did. My final interview was kind of improv-y in a crazy way; that’s a whole other story. But tefillin became part of a much longer and wider yes-and for me about prayer and spirituality, and part of a process of finding a theology very different from the one I thought I needed. I gave up the idea of God and me divided by certain laws standing on two sides of an unbridgeable river. I became a rabbi who wasn’t putting on tefillin regularly, and maybe five years ago or so, only then, did I begin putting on tefillin nearly every day. Though it might well not have turned out that way. Part of that same story is that I’ve become part of Laura’s meditation groups, and believe me that was even more unlikely for me than putting on tefillin. Now I’m working on b’rachot over the food I eat; that’s a next part of this particular scene.
I’m grateful for Rabbi Tucker, who had no idea what our first yes-and would set in motion between the two of us and also beyond the Seminary. My own practice of laying tefillin is very much this other na’aseh v’nishma -- the way of yes-and, patient agreement, moving from deficiency in my own eyes to spiritual opportunity.
And that is every bit a covenant. And I think for many, many things, Beth Abraham should strive for covenant among ourselves in that kind of na’aseh v’nishma spirit, the yes-and-spirit.
People might come to us with a Jewish statement – a desire, an idea, an act. A way to approach a ritual or Shabbat or a Bat or Bar Mitzvah that might strike us as out of left field at first. Because of not knowing Hebrew, or not accepting traditional God-language, or feeling out of place in a traditional service, or being steeped in something exciting and spiritual from the outside. Our job would be to respond “Yes, and…” Acceptance -- but not just yes-full-stop, and the scene ends awkwardly. Out of yes comes yes-and. Out of acceptance and curiosity we would contribute the next idea, another step, an offer to explore together. I, we, the traditions we have, are part of the scene. Not whatever you say we can do, but let’s see what we can say together. Something to interpret, ask questions about, and respond to. We build a covenant, and then we enrich it and deepen it.
Sometimes the traditional na’aseh v’nishma is the right approach-- try this and see where it leads. But for me, this new frame of na’aseh-v’nishma-meets-yes-and helps show the Jewish world here as a place full of opportunities, not a place of Jewish deficiency. I want to flesh this out with you and all our leadership as a fundamental approach and an attitude of positivity and curiosity toward everyone in our community.
No is a powerful thing to say. Yes can be surprisingly powerful, and welcoming. But yes-and is even more powerful -- it’s acceptance and trust, and curiosity. It’s eagerness to go into the unknown and create something Jewish together. That is the leap of faith we need these days. Not just one person’s leap toward something the shul has defined previously, but a leap together. A leap toward each other, and together toward something purposeful and joyful. Na’aseh v’nishma, let’s leap together to do something Jewish, and keep listening for what we can do together next.
I just finished the first version of a new page on my site, which I'm calling simply "USA". It has sources and mostly my own reflections about American politics, racial justice, anti-Semitism, and political leadership. I will be updating it with the best links I want people to know about, and anything good I generate as well.
It feels healing particularly today to look back on things I have written, said, and done out of my faith in this country and its politics. Rather than focus only on today's troubles, I am trying to be drawn toward MLK Day.
Post #3 – okay, more snide and angry, and still not the heart of the matter.
If we set the presidential bar at cynical, even I could do a better job than President Trump did last night:
1. Call George Floyd’s killing murder. Sure, that might make it impossible for there to be a fair trial anywhere in the U.S. but you’ve never been that concerned about the niceties of the legal process, so why start now.
2. Declare that you are ordering the Attorney General and the Department of Justice to set up a special unit right now to solve police brutality against African-Americans once and for all. You plan to be the president to do what no Democratic leader has ever succeeded in doing and you’re going to be the greatest protector of civil rights ever.
3. Co-opt the people you think are the “good protesters.” Don’t just give a litany of who all the bad ones are. Tell one of the many vivid stories of protestors protecting people or property. Your commanders surely told you that their job would be easier if the peaceful protestors had the upper hand on their own. Why not get the credit for making that happen?
4. Do some I-told-you-so. Say how the current protesters who are out in masks and respecting distance are just like the freedom-loving protesters against COVID-19 restrictions, and you are big supporter of everyone’s First Amendment rights. (That’s the Amendment right before the Second Amendment.)
5. Throw your opponents a bone. Mention that many of the violent protesters are actually using the past week to advance a pro-gun, anti-government agenda that has nothing to do with George Floyd. Call on them to clear the field and tell them “I alone can get that done”, so they should trust you or get ready to be put away for a very long time.
Presidential Speechmaking 101 involves telling stories of hope in the middle of a bad time. Bad transformed to good, that’s the arc. Sure, we see through that and it’s not enough. But it’s the formula you start with. Some even find it reassuring. The president has no ability in this area. Whenever he mentioned positive figures last night – a nurse, an African-American law enforcement “hero”, etc. – the sentence or thought always ended with disaster – “shot and killed”, “afraid to leave their homes.” Look through all his major speeches and this is the overall pattern. It’s all backward.
And that’s what scares me about the president. He doesn’t know what direction hope is in, even when constructing a sentence.
He doesn’t have the human emotions that go with telling those kind of narratives genuinely or even cynically. Which is just the starting point before you are anywhere near getting complex good things done. Why this is the case -- that’s for him and his loved ones to deal with if they so choose. The country is paying the price of having presidential power in such hands. That’s why I hold for dear life onto other leaders at all levels who are not like this, to get us through what I hope are the final months.
Post 1 today after George Floyd's killing. This one isn't the main point. More to come.
I was thinking about the president’s posing with a Bible last night after his speech, as I said my brief morning prayers while wearing tefillin. Tefillin are leather boxes with little scrolls from the Torah inside them, attached to leather straps that wrap around your nondominant arm and around your head in a literal implementation of Deuteronomy 6:8. Trying to get the words into your arm and into your head, by spiritual osmosis. When you take off the tefillin, they leave an imprint on your arm for a while, like when you sleep on the wrinkle of a sheet and then look in the mirror (also your hair, I’m not putting that in a photo).
I don’t keep my tefillin on for very long each morning, not nearly as long as those who say a full service. And this was one of the hardest practices for me to take on for a variety of reasons. I wear the tefillin that belonged once to my great-grandfather and that I got refurbished in the Old City of Jerusalem. I have my tefillin on long enough for me to say the Shma (passage from Deuteronomy 6) about the oneness of the divine, love of God through heart and soul and action, and seeing Torah as new every day, the language I should use to speak, and the lens for “sitting in my house and going on my ways.” Then I say a brief part of a prayer that evokes the Exodus, the part that recalls the divine as one who lifts the lowly and humbles the arrogant and redeems those who call out, and that quotes the song of the first moments of redemption and freedom from Exodus 15.
And even so, with the imprint of all this on my body, it is hard during the rest of the day to be and to appear like someone who was wrapped in the Bible. It’s required in my tradition every day, with the exception of Shabbat and festivals when we hope the very air is so Torah-filled that we don’t need the extra help. It doesn't really "work" just once in a while.
So how dare anyone make a show of holding the Bible at arm’s length, standing on the *outside* of a house of worship he has demanded that people be allowed to enter inside as a national priority. Show me that something has made an imprint on your arm, at the very least. Then I will believe it has anything to do with your actions. Then I will believe you are, in your words, "pay[ing] my respects to a very, very special place."
25 years ago today we received our degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and became rabbis and cantors for the Jewish people. Some reminiscences and reflections, I am sure I will have more, maybe a sermon this Saturday...
The best part of the week was that Laurie also got her MBA from Columbia. We had come to New York not married yet but wanting to be in the same place, and we had no idea then that our timelines would line up this way. Laurie's mom and my parents were all there for all our celebrations.
At JTS, we had our siyyum earlier in the week -- a study-completion ceremony that we helped create, less formal-academic than the commencement. We had not been, truthfully, the most cohesive class in the history of the Rabbinical School. Part of that was having started in about five different ways and times and places. We didn't all have the same experience. Toward the end, we needed an intervention -- I remember Adina Lewittes from the administration getting involved. From somewhere came the idea that the cantorial and rabbinical graduates should come together by learning a song as a choir. Singing together -- how I miss the group singing today -- was magical. We chose or someone chose Debbie Friedman z"l's Kaddish D'Rabbanan/Prayer for Teachers. This is how we sang it, courtesy of a cassette tape recorder Laurie must have had in the audience: https://tinyurl.com/jts1995siyyum
Commencement Day: There were sharpshooters on the roof. That's because of our speaker, who you can see in one of the photos. Sitting Vice President of the United States Al Gore.
For me a sweet moment at the graduation ceremony was right after I received my diploma and stepped down from the stage. Dr. Stephen Geller stood up to shake my end. He was one of my favorite professors. In our class were a number of Geller groupies. We took many of his courses on Bible, because of his fascinating erudition about ancient history, Near Eastern Languages, and literary analysis. And his dry sharp wit. We rabbinical students would sometimes sit in the back and watch him take apart the graduate students in the Bible Department, from a safe distance. I don't think I believed he knew who I was, and I was touched that he did.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker was the first of my three deans. Gordon took me into the program even though I was grappling with the ideology of Conservative Judaism and the Seminary itself (some things do not change). I really don't think any of his successors would have taken me in. I owe him this rabbinate.
Rabbi Joe Lukinsky z"l was our first year seminar leader. He was something of a throwback to an era when the JTS Education Department was a major, creative think tank. He was an ex-baseball player who almost got into pro ball. We would talk baseball and ideas. A few years after graduating I took Joe to Yankee Stadium - the one time I think I ever gave Steinbrenner my money! -- so I could experience a game with Joe, from batting practice all the way.
Along the way we lost our classmate Rabbi Cyndie Culpeper z"l. Cyndie had been a nurse before rabbinical school and continued to work during breaks. Not long after we graduated, she found out that she had contracted HIV from her nursing work. Cyndie became the first congregational rabbi to announce having AIDS. She bravely stepped forward and led and taught not only her own congregation but all of us. She would have been celebrating with us today. May her memory be for a blessing.
25 years... I think today as often of Naomi Shemer's song Od Lo Ahavti Dai -- "I have not yet loved enough, I have not yet said enough, and if not now when?" For today I am grateful for the privilege of being called Rabbi, and I celebrate with and for my fellow classmates, and our teachers.
This post is based on the D'var Torah I gave at services on Saturday, March 9, 2019. I also plan another post with some thoughtful articles on the topic from other sources.
I always set out extra books for services in addition to the Siddurim (prayerbooks), on the cart outside the Sanctuary and in the small Chapel too. They are not just for you; when I am not leading a service, I use them too! On Thursday evening in the Chapel, I took a Tanakh (Bible) instead of a Siddur and read from the Megillah, the story of Esther. We are in the month leading up to Purim in less than two weeks.
For most of us, the Bible that’s most familiar is a kind of Sunday School Bible. The Book of Esther that we have learned that way is a hilarious story. Even in the parts related to Haman’s plot to get rid of all the Jews, the story is funny and over the top. The Megillah is like that all the way through Haman’s being finally exposed and then executed by the king.
In the real, complete Tanakh, that’s not the whole story. There’s a lot more text, and it is not at all funny.
On Thursday night, what I did was to read the Megillah to myself, but starting at chapter 8. That chapter follows immediately the demise of Haman. Mordechai is installed in power by King Achashverosh in Haman’s place. But when Queen Esther asks the king to revoke his original edict against the Jews, the king says he is powerless to do that. All he can do is to authorize them to fight back legally, with another royal edict. Chapters 8-9 tell about the many people Jews kill all over the empire as they defend themselves, and they tell the fear that the Jews elicit because of their fierce response. Here is a verse you most certainly did not learn in Hebrew School:
וְרַבִּים מֵעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ מִתְיַהֲדִים כִּי־נָפַל פַּחַד־הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם: …V’rabim me-amay ha-aretz mityahadim ki nafal pachad hayehudim alayhem -- "many among the peoples of the land passed themselves off as Jewish, because fear of the Jews had fallen over them” (Esther 8:17).
Achashverosh, the king, comes across in the last three chapters as someone who loves his Jewish wife Esther, who appreciates or at least respects his new Jewish vizier Mordechai. And as someone who possibly feels intimidated by them, doing what he needs to do in the moment to restore peace and to stay in power.
Once the fighting dies down, Esther and Mordechai institute the annual festival of Purim. It’s a celebration of the reversal of fortunes for the Jews, and includes also mishloach manot and matanot la’evyonim -- bringing gifts to each other and helping those in need.
Chapters 8-10 of the Megillah are about Jewish power established in the immediate wake of vulnerability. They are about having powerful allies and knowing that alliance comes from both love of us and fear of us. They are about figuring out what to do with Jewish power and the power of our allies. And they are about what it’s like to remember a recent threat, to remember fear, from the vantage point of more recently achieved power. They are about figuring out what to do with this power going forward -- when to unleash it and when to worry about what it does to us.
I selected this part of the Megillah to read and meditate on Thursday evening, because it was a spot-on text for this past week. Reading it felt unsettling and reassuring at the same time. Which is exactly how I have felt all week as the controversy surrounding Rep. Ilhan Omar from my great home state of Minnesota continued to unfold. The words of hers were straight out of the Megillah -- fear of the power of the Jews. I had all these kinds of reflections during the week: It was good to see the power we have as American Jews at work against repeated slanders rooted in anti-Semitic stereotypes. It felt strange and weird to be the center of attention once again, so soon after Pittsburgh, which I have certainly not yet gotten over. I wondered whether I am living up to the responsibility that comes with so many people paying attention to anti-Semitism -- whether I have been a person who fights against hate directed at others as fully as I expect others to fight against hate directed at us.
It is important, it is spiritually critical, to have a swirl of these kinds of reactions, and not to let ourselves settle on only one. If we are only thinking one thing right now -- if we are not acknowledging the many such reactions within our own community -- we are lying to ourselves, and hiding from ourselves and from each other -- and from our responsibilities.
I want to fill in some information, and then propose a way of thinking about our responsibilities. What’s the mitzvah here always has to be the grounding Jewish question.
Part of what I say I hope has merit for you because I personally hear Rep. Omar and am horrified out of my own religious, leftish Zionism. I have said from the bimah (pulpit) in the past that the eventual freedom of Palestinians as a nation will become part of our own Jewish story of being agents of freedom in the world. I have been involved for a long time in AIPAC, where my view about the Palestinians is widely and openly shared, though probably not by the majority. If your perspective in anywhere near that, or anywhere to the right of it, I think you’ll be able to hear me.
Part of what I can tell you is because I’m a Minnesotan, and I know rabbis who live and work in the Minnesota 5th, Rep. Omar’s congressional district -- particularly rabbis involved in progressive circles. They have been right in the middle of trying to fix things; they are the people most frustrated by Rep. Omar's repeated slanders. The district includes the city of Minneapolis and many of its first-ring suburbs, including St. Louis Park, which is the Brookline-Newton of Minneapolis. Some of the Jews you may know of who grew up there: former Sen. Al Franken, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Columbia University development economist Jeffrey Sacks, the Coen Brothers. When I was young, that’s where you would go for kosher meat and Jewish books. There are today about as many Jews in the Minnesota 5th as in the state of New Hampshire.
When the district elected Rep. Omar, an immigrant from Somalia and a Muslim and a woman, a lot of us native Minnesotans were very proud. The story of Somali immigration in Minnesota has at times been very difficult, and Jews have been active in fighting the anti-Muslim and anti-African bigotry surrounding the integration of Somalis. And that’s what has made the congresswoman’s recent statements particularly painful, for the rabbis and progressive Jews in the district.
Beyond what you’ve read in every article, Rep. Omar said a couple of other things at the DC bookstore where she spoke at length about a week and a half ago. She said that the Jewish constituents who have met with her to speak about her AIPAC comments talk about Jews in Israel as their family, but don’t seem to have actual family in Israel. She also said that the Jewish activists who have come never talk about the Palestinians and their suffering.
Rep. Omar is not telling the truth about the Jewish people she has been in touch with about all of this. I know who they are, and I can tell you that they include both moderates and progressives, including people from an organization called Jewish Community Action, a social justice group that my parents are often involved in. JCA members are people who have stood up previously to vouch for Rep. Omar publicly even when other Jewish groups haven’t, and who have been in vocal and active solidarity with Palestinians, even when that puts them at odds with others in the Jewish community. So Rep. Omar is either misrepresenting them, or somehow unable to hear them.
My friends who are in the thick of this in Minneapolis are befuddled and confused and angry. They don’t understand why Rep. Omar is invested in misrepresenting their views, and putting them as Jews in boxes where they are so clearly not. They do not feel that things are in a good place right now, despite a lot of dialogue. They who are up close are also committed to trying and trying again with her, and remaining in solidarity with the Muslim community in the district. As one of them put it a couple days ago: we are doing the best we can, and we are exhausted.
This is part of a larger story of Jews not being seen or acknowledged or even allowed in certain places on the activist left, unless they leave behind nuance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and agree not to say that there are Palestinian leaders who are also responsible for the fact that it continues.
Even on Thursday, the day of the House resolution against anti-Semitism and other hatreds, a fundraising letter went out from Rep. Ocasio-Cortez that said: “It’s official -- AIPAC is coming after Alexandria, Ilhan, and Rashida”, the three recently elected representatives from New York, Minnesota, and Michigan. Which is completely false. And the letter is easy to read as: the rich, bad Jews are going after us, and dividing us from the good Jews who support equality and would want to be with us.
And all of this is a form of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism does not have to come in the form of a white supremacist attacking a synagogue to deserve our attention, or to be a palpable threat to us. It is not all right ever for any political leader or any political movement, even while promoting other good things, to tell lies about Jews. It is not all right to say things that can easily be taken to justify terror attacks against Israeli civilians.
So what do the final chapters of the Megillah tell us, about our power in this kind of situation and the mitzvot we ought to be doing?
One mitzvah: We need to build alliances with the Achashverosh-es, to use our power so that people in positions of power want, and think it’s in their interests, to stand up for us or to stand behind us as we stand up.
One person I have been reaching out to is my own congresswoman, Rep. Annie Kuster. I wrote her a few weeks ago when this began to heat up, asking for her support on this question of “dual allegiance”, and more than that, asking her to reach out personally to Rep. Omar. Because both of them represent areas with small but politically active Jewish communities of the roughly same magnitude, and Rep. Kuster has such good relationships with me and many Jewish leaders and Jews who are prominent in New Hampshire Democratic politics. Annie has offered more than once to come to Beth Abraham and speak about her own experience visiting Israel and her views about the situation. She supports two states and has voted for Israeli military aid, and she is very well-informed. I suggested that she could talk with Rep. Omar about how she does this. I am pleased to tell you that I got not a standard note back, but a phone call from her office affirming her support for Israel. It's a conversation I intend to continue when I am in DC this coming week.
Another mitzvah from the end of the Megillah: We need to get and build our power so that we have the confidence to go to difficult places without fear for our safety. We, or at least some of us, need to be willing to go into difficult places where the anti-Semitic canards are incubating, and engage there. Those of us on or closer to the left need to take responsibility for talking with people on the left -- just as those on or near the right need to do it there.
So another thing I am doing: Last week at the monthly meeting of the Nashua Area Interfaith Council, I said that I know people are talking about Rep. Omar, and announced that I will have coffee with anyone who wants to talk about it. Many of the people in that group come from denominations or organizations that have supported boycotts of some sort against Israel. Before I left and in e-mails starting that day, people jumped up to tell me they want to talk. In response to one Facebook post, from an activist I know and respect, I held back the comment I was going to write but probably wouldn’t have been heard. Instead I wrote my e-mail address in the comments with invitation to anyone on the thread to talk. And I separately reached out to the person who posted to get together, and we’re going to do that.
There is trust that I have built painstakingly with many people in the interfaith council, and I know we can talk. I am going to offer a class this fall, I decided this week in the fall in the RISE and OLLI programs -- about the Israel-Palestine conflict, from the Zionist viewpoint that I have described to you. I am a popular teacher there, and I know people will sign up.
We are fortunate in Greater Nashua that we have not been driven apart from other people whose causes we share because of Israel. There is no coalition here that I can’t be a part of so far because of my Zionism. I am much more interested in cultivating these local relationships and talking to people, really getting into questions and sharing information, about all the factors from Arabs and Israelis that have kept the conflict in place -- that is much more important for me to do than responding with a written public statement to everything that national actors say or do.
And a final set of mitzvot from the end of the Megillah. The practices that Esther and Mordechai instituted begin but do not end with retelling the dynamics of a past threat and how we fought it. On Purim, we read the Megillah twice, evening and morning. Twice we marinate in the story of the plot against our lives, rooted in statements about our disloyalty. But Esther and Mordechai wanted to make sure that the lesson of Purim was not just about remembering that, and not just about building ourselves up in anticipation of the next such battle. So they instructed us to do at least three acts on the day of Purim from an open heart and an outstretched arm. To send food to at least one friend, and to give to at least two people in need.
So a rule of thumb for today -- a 3:2 match. For every two acts of fighting anti-Semitism, three acts of compassion. One act to build up our own Jewish community in a joyful way. One act of being there when someone in our Jewish community needs comforting or needs help. And one act of standing up for a person or group outside of us who is the target of hate.
I have been trying to take this as well to heart. Because I've said these kinds of things out loud or published them, I was invited to give a blessing at the local African-American MLK event in January. There I heard a speech from a senior at Nashua North named Jamila-Ashanti Scales about all the racism that has been directed at her from grade school through high school. I offered to her that morning to be an ally if she ever needed one. Sure enough, two days later in the local paper, she was dragged into a conflict within the Board of Education, on the day of her final exams no less. I reached out to her family, who I know and some in our shul know, and asked what I could do. As a result, I published something supportive of her in the Telegraph, and I spent an hour with the school board members who were involved, cajoling them to make it right until they agreed to a step I suggested.
The last chapters of the Megillah are not easy ones, and the work we have in front of us right now is not easy. Why should it be. I don’t know, and my colleagues in Minnesota don’t claim to know, whether we’ll reach a good outcome with any specific leader we are at odds with. But I do believe that we can succeed and build here, where we actually have the power to influence people. We will not make everyone into lovers of Israel; that’s not the measure. But with hard and long work, we have it in our power to make the anti-Semitic into true fringes on the left and the right, and to help make all forms of bigotry a fringe within our own souls and our community.
And who knows, as the Megillah also says in a more familiar part, whether it was for a time like this that we have been given so much power.
Here is my D'var Torah from Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, the Shabbat after the killings at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. You can read it or download it as a pdf file here.
It is so good to be here together this morning. I know that it is a great comfort to our friends, our sisters and brothers in Pittsburgh, to know that people are gathered in synagogues all over, thinking about them, mourning with them, and doing something to live in the legacy of the eleven people who were killed at Tree of Life Congregation, while they were doing what we are doing. I have been in touch with Jewish professional colleagues in Pittsburgh, and they are exhausted, and also amazing. It means a lot to them that we care and that we are here in our congregations this Shabbat.
We are drawn here this Shabbat, at a time when we need to reach beyond ourselves -- for the divine, for each other, and deep into ourselves. I know for me, having Shabbat waiting during a difficult week helps me find my footing -- knowing there will be a chance to take a breath, that precious words will be set up for me to sing with other people and say alone, that we will celebrate. We are drawn to a Bat Mitzvah, so we can be inspired, and I want to acknowledge and thank Lexi and her parents, Matt and Kyle, for being Beth Abraham’s partners in this particular Shabbat which suddenly became different from what any of us anticipated.
I want to welcome you who have come for the occasion of Lexi’s Bat Mitzvah, and you who have come to be with us because all over America people have decided to join with the Jewish community, in solidarity and in defiance.
I hope all of you know that our synagogue leadership has been focused this week on taking care of you -- thinking about how you can be safe here, being available for you. We have had children and staff and members and guests here from first thing Sunday morning throughout the week. Many people have spent a lot of time going over security decisions and listening to anyone who has reached out and needed to talk on any level. I want to say a thank you to the Nashua Police Department for being so responsive to us from last Saturday onward, even anticipating our needs.
Last Saturday at the Tree of Life Congregation, eleven people were murdered and six were injured by a man who wanted to wipe out Jews, because he believes that we and the other people we stand by are a threat to white America.
And despite what he did, we have seen the unbelievable spirit of the Jewish neighborhood in Squirrel Hill, and the unstoppable force of mitzvah, even in the midst of horror and exhaustion.
The shomrim who stay with bodies before a Jewish burial who had to fulfill that responsibility at an active crime scene.The chevra kadisha groups who prepare bodies for burial, and the chevras from elsewhere who came to help, in case it was too much for the local people to bear to prepare friends whose bodies had been torn by bullets. The Jewish medical staff who treated and stabilized the gunman and even talked with him. Mitzvot are relentless.
I have had to give too many sermons at times like these. I have reread them all in the past few days. I don’t want to say the same thing again and again, with just the locations and details changed. I believe we are at a point of tremendous power and risk -- when we could tip into disillusionment, about anti-Semitism and white nationalism in this country -- or when we could help fuel a cascade in the other direction, the direction of tikkun. That would take some courage, and an ability to look hard into the darkness in new ways, but I believe the opportunity is there. And to Lexi, to you and to your classmates, I say that being Bat and Bar Mitzvah has never been more important, being a mitzvah person, and we need every single one of you to get to work with us.
I put on the study sheet a teaching from the Mishnah,the first book of Jewish law after the Torah, from about the year 200. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: I am like a man of seventy years, and I did not achieve an understanding of why the Exodus from Egypt is said at night until Ben Zoma explained this verse from the Torah to me: “In order that you will remember the going out from Egypt all the days of your life” (Deuteronomy 16:3) -- “the days of your life” means the days; “all the days of your life” means the nights. But the Sages say: “the days of your life” means this world; “all the days of your life” means to bring the messianic days. [Mishnah Berachot 1:5]
If you have been to a Passover Seder, you might recognize this paragraph -- it’s one of the paragraphs you might gloss over with discussion or event skip. But this week the passage called out to me all of a sudden, the way Torah does when we really need it.
The Talmud says Rabbi Elazar wasn’t actually old when he taught this teaching -- he was eighteen. But looking out on his world one day, he suddenly felt like he was seventy.
As though there would not be enough time in his life to see the world he was dreaming of. As though he couldn’t escape the trauma of the persecutions of Jews before his lifetime. One day at the age of eighteen, all his hair suddenly turned gray.
Rabbi Elazar was thinking about how we recall the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It’s is the original story of anti-Semitism, the first violent attack on Jews as a group for being Jews, the first time someone gives a supposed “reason” for that. Rabbi Elazar had seen this story as a story about the day of liberation -- about the march of the Jews into freedom at high noon, with their hands held high. As a story about light -- of a mighty God whose outstretched arm could overpower any worldly oppression.
Ben Zoma taught him that it wouldn’t be enough to tell that story that way -- you have to face the story of the night as well. The Exodus is the power of God on the side of the hated -- but it is also a story about that hate. The worry that it is not actually gone but just something we ran away from, that will find its way back to us again.
I used to think that there were two kinds of Jews: those who were obsessed by the darkness, and those who could see light and be inspired by it. And I had no patience once upon a time, for the Jews who chose to look at the darkness so much. But as my own hairs are slowly graying, I think I have started to get what Rabbi Elazar learned from Ben Zoma.
When you are basking in the light of Jewish freedom, don’t pretend there is no darkness. And when you are in the darkness, as we have been this week, don’t close your eyes to lights that might in fact be growing.
Yesterday, the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had, across the top, in large Hebrew print the words יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבה Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Sh’may Rabbah, the opening words of the Mourners’ Kaddish. And every single page of the paper’s desktop website had those words at the top. The business page, the sports page. Even the page with an article about the downtown Pittsburgh Christmas tree lighting. When has that ever happened?
Our U.S. Senator, Maggie Hassan, made phone calls this week to each one of the rabbis in New Hampshire personally. We are a minority in a small state, but Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein can’t do what she did.
It wasn’t for a perfunctory conversation. We talked for some 15 minutes, and she asked if there was anything specific we needed. We talked together about how all the different levels of hate and animosity today do or don’t interact. She said that I should tell you that tens of thousands of Granite Staters are thinking about us and standing with us.
Some of the most remarkable things have happened when Jews were not even around. I’ve been carrying with me all week these notes that the Unitarian Universalist Church took time in their service last Sunday to write us, adult words and some scribbles and pictures from children even. This is just one example of all the support sent to me and to us this week.
And at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Nashua, something happened last Sunday, which was a special day in their calendar, the anniversary of the founding of Lutheranism, of the day Martin Luther pinned his theses on the church door.
Pastor Dave said to the congregation that they could not just celebrate all the wisdom and leadership of Luther -- they also had to mention Luther’s anti-Semitism, and to mention how Luther’s words were later used by the Nazis. They didn’t talk about this because he and I had spoken, which we haven’t, or because we were there, because none of us were.
This is people who don’t know that many Jews being told that they have to reckon with their own religious group’s responsibility in the history of anti-Semitism. Not during an educational program, or a joint Holocaust remembrance. When has that happened?
I have long said that we live in a time when Jews have more more allies than ever before. And this week we can see that we are standing in a new daylight, as Jews in this country. This is not the same as what has been before. Somehow, even in the dark, we need to see that.
And yet, Rabbi Elazar learns from Ben Zoma that it is foolish to say this unless we have the honesty to talk about the night and face it. Night represents anti-Semitism lurking where we didn’t see it coming and we don’t expect it. Night is where the factors that drive anti-Semitism and white nationalism are hard to sort out, where the relationships among them are murky.
I was a person who shut my eyes to extent of American anti-Semitism especially in its white supremacist form, for years. Last week was the anti-Semitism of hate and violence, but there is also an anti-Semitism and a white nationalism of ideas that sound, like the new Pharaoh’s words at the start of Exodus, kind of reasonable to enough people.
This predates the president, and I said before the election from this pulpit that if he lost, I feared that we would think we were out of the woods. He is not an anti-Semite personally; the white nationalists revile him for having Jews in his family and his inner circle and his cabinet. And he is in the next room over, so to speak, calling his political opposition people who have “launched an assault... on the safety of every single American,” as he said in Texas the week before the shooting. That’s talking about born Americans, not even outsiders. It’s not surprising if someone who hears that, and already wants to intimidate or harm someone in a minority group, is emboldened. Not when so many people who we wouldn’t call white supremacists hear this kind of thing and cheer enthusiastically. In the dark, we don’t know how exactly how all of that stirs together, but it does.
I know a lot of you are on the very narrow bridge between hope and disillusionment. This week the bridge seems even narrower, and it takes courage to keep walking. We are in an unstable situation. It takes strength and balance not to fall off. But we have a net below us like we have never had. I no longer believe it’s enough to stand pat, just bank the relationships we have and grow them with interest. Now we will have to take some risks. But the chance of reward has never been greater.
Some of us have to risk a venture into the darkness. We have to go where people misunderstand us, or invite people who misunderstand us or haven’t thought about us, to come and talk with us. Even people who already have biases or stereotypes about us. Tomorrow I have a piece in the Nashua Telegraph inviting people to talk to me, to arrange to come to the synagogue or to invite me to speak somewhere, and any question is on the table, no matter how potentially offensive.
And some of us have to take the final step of the Mishnah, the argument that the Sages make against Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah -- that these stories have to impel us toward messianic days.
I ask myself -- when communities and churches were attacked in other places, why have I and why have we not responded with the kind of concern and love that others have shown to us this week? Where were our songs, our flowers, our offers of food? And truthfully, have we even been there this way when Israelis have been victims of terror?
And I remind us: that as tenacious as anti-Semitism and white supremcism have been, they are at least easy to denounce. But doing so does nothing about even more tenacious problems of poverty, suffering, and injustice in our society. Those can’t be solved by humanizing the other -- that just gets us, barely, to the starting line.
I do not want to feel old and spent, before I understand all of this.
If I am going to be old about these things, I want to be old like one of our oldest members. Where is Shirley?
Shirley is our fourth oldest member -- born in Europe, a person who knows what that world was that she and her family had to leave. She is 94.
When we had our service on Monday evening, with about 100 people, what Shirley wanted to say into the microphone most of all was this: that in the first day, the Muslim community in Pittsburgh took the initiative to raise tens of thousands of dollars to help the Jewish community. This is the same Shirley, who feels every act of anti-Semitism in the world, and every small bigoted insult about Jews where in the complex where she lives, piercing her inside.
I called her over after the service and remarked on that -- that you Shirley contain in yourself the most finely tuned sensitivity and worry about our place in the world as Jews, and also the ability to see generosity and support and possibility in that same world.
Shirley can tell you that this is a difficult place to live, almost unbearable. But that is precisely where we need to be. That’s the message of the Mishnah about Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Ben Zoma, and the Sages. I say, let’s be old like our 94-year-old Shirley, and let’s be young like our newest mitzvah-people, like Lexi and all you B’not and B’nai Mitzvah. You young people already have a head start on these challenges of this world. Pull us with you back toward the idealism we need.
This week we have mourned, and we have looked at the darkness, but we can also tell a story of light, and even see to bringing our world toward messianic days. I will not let the gunman or the supremacists take my faith in America from me. I will be ever grateful for all of you here, for those who are with us, and for those who inspire us.
We will talk more and make plans. Anti-Semitism and white supremacism are violent, and they are largely built on words -- words that trick and deceive, words that bully, words on the web and words between people. We will fight it and we will defeat it with our own words -- words that love, words that encourage, words between people and even words on the web. Words that describe the real world and words that describe the world we dream of.
May God and may this gathering of ours bring some comfort to all those mourning those were killed in Pittsburgh, and may our lives make their memories a blessing.
This Shabbat is the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, the new moon marking one month before Rosh Hashanah. I want to invite all of you into a challenge with me: the Elul Love Your Neighbor Study Challenge.
Part of the process of teshuvah (returning, redirecting ourselves) is studying what the Torah says about relationships between people and our responsibilities in the world. One of the unique ways the Jewish community can reshape the world in the new year is by bringing into action our teachings about compassion and justice.
What better way to start doing both of those things than to study this month a verse that is at the literal center of the Torah: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ V’ahavta l’ray’acha kamocha “Love your neighbor as yourself”
The tradition of Jewish commentary on this phrase, each word within it, and its context in the Torah make clear that this is not some vague and gooey teaching. Rather, it opens up a set of challenges and questions that we have to figure out how to apply in our personal lives and as citizens.
I would like to study this verse during the month of Elul, between now and Rosh Hashanah, with at least 75 people. I hope many will be people who don’t already usually study Torah.
When and How:
If you are interested in hosting a study salon at your home, or setting up some study time with me for yourself or a small group at the synagogue or another place, contact me as soon as possible! Or, come to one of these ready-made opportunities:
Love Your Neighbor Café (coffee, tea, etc are on me!)
Thursday, Aug. 16 10:00-11:00 a.m. A&E Coffee Roasters, 135 Rte 101A, Amherst
Friday, Aug. 17 10:30-11:30 a.m. Buckley’s Bakery and Café, 436 Daniel Webster Hwy, Merrimack
Wednesday, Aug. 22 1:00-2:00 p.m. The Village Bean, 33 Indian Rock Rd (Rte 111), Windham
Tuesday, Aug. 28 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Riverwalk Café, 35 Railroad Square, Nashua
Lunch Hour Torah – call in or participate by video through the web
12:00-1:00 p.m. Aug. 14, 22, or 30
Just click https://zoom.us/j/5530075723 or call (929) 436-2866 or (669) 900 6833, use meeting ID 553 007 5723
Beit Midrash In-Depth Study Session – 2 Hours of Torah (With Snacks)
6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, August 16 and Tuesday, August 28
at Temple Beth Abraham (20 minute interlude for minyan at 7:30 p.m.)
I hope this sparks many conversations. I know I will learn a lot through this learning together, about ethics and relationships and even politics, and we will figure out ways to share what we learn. I'll post updates on how far we are toward the surface goal of the challenge, and include a small taste of the topic in my regular Elul e-blasts.
May this be a step toward a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet New Year!
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov, a good new month,
There are a lot of important things happening in the real world this week. Still, you should forward the following to whoever delivers sermons in your place of worship, whatever their title and whatever scripture they preach about.
It's a scene from the West Wing TV show, and it's a withering critique of sermons. I post this in a spirit of self-flagellation, for the many times I have been what President Bartlet calls a "hack", not living up to the gift of a willing audience every week in the synagogue.
Thanks as always to Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway for their podcast, The West Wing Weekly. This week they discussed the episode of which this scene is a part. The whole episode, of the show and of their podcast, is amazing.
The doors open. Bartlet and Abbey walk inside. CHARLIE Good afternoon. ABBEY Hi, Charlie. CHARLIE How was church? BARTLET [mumbles] It sucked. ABBEY It was fine. [to Bartlet] Stop it! BARTLET It sucked! ABBEY [sighs] You're talking about church. BARTLET Oh, like I'm not already going to hell. CHARLIE [follows them a pace behind] What was the problem? ABBEY He feels the homily lacked penache. BARTLET It did lack penache. ABBEY It was a perfectly lovely homily on Ephesians 5:21. "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." BARTLET Yeah. She's skipping over the part that says, "Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord, for a husband is the head of a wife as Christ is the head of the church." ABBEY I do skip over that part. BARTLET Why? ABBEY Because it's stupid! They walk in THE OVAL OFFICE. BARTLET Okay. ABBEY "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by washing of water with the word that he might present the Church to himself in..." something. BARTLET [behind his desk, puts on glasses] "In splendor." And I have no problem with Ephesians. And any time you want me to cleanse you with the washing of water, you know I'm up for it. ABBEY Then what is your problem? BARTLET Hackery! Abbey waves her arms at him and walks out to the PORTICO. Bartlet follows. BARTLET This guy was a hack! He had a captive audience! And the way I know that is that I tried to tunnel out of there several times. He had an audience and he didn't know what to do with it. ABBEY You want him to sing "Volare?" BARTLET Couldn't have hurt. Words... ABBEY Oh, God, no. BARTLET Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They have rhythm, and pitch, and timbre, and volume. These are the properties of music, and music has the ability to find us and move us, and lift us up in ways that literal meanings can't. Do you see? ABBEY You are an oratorical snob. BARTLET Yes, I am. And God loves me for it. They stop and face each other. ABBEY You said he was sending you to hell. BARTLET For other stuff, not for this. You can't just trod out Ephesians, which he blew, by the way, it has nothing with husbands and wives, it's all of us. Saint Paul begins the passage: "Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ." [passionately] "Be subject to one another." In this day and age of 24-hour cable crap, devoted to feeding the voyeuristic gluttony of the American public, hooked on a bad soap opera that's passing itself off as important, don't you think you might be able to find some relevance in verse 21? How do end the cycle? Be subject to one another! ABBEY So... This is about you. BARTLET No, it's not about me! Well, yes, it is about me, but tomorrow it'll be about somebody else. We'll watch Larry King and see who. [shouts] All hacks, off the stage! Right now! That's a national security order.