Friday, February 17, 2017

Who is Jethro? -- Parshat Yitro 2017/5777

     Believe it or not, it’s less than two months to Passover.  We’ve just finished reading about the Exodus, and then less than 8 weeks later we will celebrate the Exodus in all its glory.  When we think of the Exodus we may tend to envision a sea of people setting out from Egypt into the wilderness.  Cecil B Demille used 14,000 extras and 15,000 live animals to make the sweeping and epic Exodus scene in his movie.  But we know precious little about the individuals who start walking into the desert that day except for a few notable names like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
     The rest are a group of people who are connected by common ancestry to our patriarchs and matriarchs, but although we have a rough idea of their numbers, we do not know much about them. 
     But in the days after we leave, we re-encounter Yitro – Jethro – Moses’ father-in-law whom we met earlier when Moses left Egypt the first time.  Of all the possible individuals to emphasize at this momentous time, the Torah recognizes Jethro – not an Israelite, a believer in God, but not a member of the tribe.
     What makes Jethro’s re-appearance even more confusing is that he appears in the Bible with three different names.  Jethro, Re’u’El, and Chovav.  The vast throngs of Israelites march as one nameless mass, but the one non-Israelite who plays an important role here has, not one, but 3 names of his own. 
     The Rabbis describe Jethro as a very self-aware and humble man, much like Moses, a man who knows he is an outsider but also who has a significant message and teaching for Moses himself.  Jethro praises God for the wonders done in Egypt before the 600,000 + Israelites do so.  He does not rush into the Israelite camp but rather shoots an arrow into the camp with a letter attached to inform Moses he would like to meet.
Jethro perhaps receives his name because he acts the way God wishes each individual Israelite would behave.  He is a doogmah, an example for the Israelites to see as a role model, possibly the first friendly non-Israelite anyone has ever met outside Egypt, a non-Israelite who in one stroke helps to reorganize the entire people and make everyone’s life easier.  In this way, Jethro is the antithesis to Pharaoh, a leader who only wants to make everyone’s life easier.
     As we get re-acquainted with Jethro this Shabbat, let’s give thanks for the way he sets an example for our people at a critical moment.  He approaches the nameless mass in blessing and thanksgiving and with help and hope in his heart.  The way he sets up the judiciary structure for the Israelites, with judges at all levels, all the way down to the judges who will preside even over the tens – that is over the smallest groups – will help to ensure that the now nameless mass can begin to regain their individual dignity.
     The man with 3 names is now helping to make sure that each and every Israelite can preserve his or her one name. 
     May we seek to raise each other up, to recognize that like Jethro, each of us goes by many names & the best way to get to know each other is by finding out what all those names mean to each of us so that we can all feel we are recognized and valued here in our community.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Snow Shoveling and Redemption - A reflection

The snow started to fall on Saturday afternoon.  The talk prior to the weekend was of ‘a few inches, maybe’ but we ended up with snowfall that lasted through the night, covering everything with a thick powdery layer -- and leading to cancellations for Sunday activities.

     While the kids played outside yesterday, and the sun was going down, I had a choice to make.  Wait for the plough service to come and clear the driveway or clean it up myself.  With snow like this, we like to know that, if necessary, we can scoot over to CVS or the market for something in an emergency.  There are other reasons I thought about clearing the driveway by myself in that moment.  We’d been cooped up inside for many hours, my wife wanted to stay inside, and the kids wanted to play outside, and I needed some exercise. 

     Reflecting back on the decision of ‘to shovel or to wait’, I think there is a lesson here about redemption.  When we speak of redemption and Messiah/Moshi’ach (the redeem-er) or about a ‘Messianic Era’, we are thinking faith-forward.  How will the future unfold and what will be my role in that future?  In my snow-dilemma, either way I knew that the driveway would, at some point, be clear.  But…If I had a very long driveway, read ‘if my future seemed laden with trouble and travail or dim with uncertainty’, I might have felt overwhelmed at the thought of trying to push so much snow with my one shovel, read ‘bring about redemption with my own action’.  On the other hand, I might have decided to tilt at the driveway-windmill  as much as I could until I collapsed knowing that I had put in a full effort despite the odds. 

     The conclusion is that we tend to evaluate our faith-future in relative terms, and the way we think about these terms determines how likely we are to participate in creating that future or in waiting for, a la Coelho, the universe to conspire to create that future for us.  Either way, the assumption in Jewish thinking is that the redemption is coming.  Much like Christians believe in a ‘2nd Coming’, and the way others hope for an ABBA reunion tour, we feel, at different levels of intensity, a need to ‘see’ the future.  Jewish tradition asks us to believe that the ancient covenants between God and people are immutable, and that the Exodus from Egypt is something that is an archetype for a future liberation. 
In ‘snowfall surprise moments’ like this past weekend’s blizzard, we tend to think about redemption much more than an average day.  When we ask questions like ‘How soon until it melts?’  ‘Are the roads open?’  ‘Are the movie theaters going to be open?’ we are asking low-level redemption questions.  We’re contemplating liberation from the natural order of things even as the snow itself ‘liberates us’ by changing the environment, keeping us closer to home, and quieting down the general rush into more of a walk. 

     Redemption-thinking is as much about these moments, when we are inspired to question as we contemplate the future, as it is about the destiny of the world.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Parshat Vayetze: What is Chanukah?

Mai Chanukah?  What is Chanukah?

There is no tractate of the Talmud that explains the entire story of Chanukah.  In fact, from the sound of the question above, "Mai Chanukah/What is Chanukah?," someone in the ancient academy wasn’t sure what it was, or possibly, what it meant.  Perhaps by the time the Rabbis recorded this discussion, nearly 700 years after the actual events, the students in the academy were wondering how their ancestors did something unprecedented, as with Purim, they created a holiday on their own. 

Can we imagine our calendar without it?  Some Jews could.

Like our ancestral parent Jacob who runs from Esau’s wrath and revenge, a group of Jews escaped from the Holy Land during the time Antiochus and his forces were persecuting the Jewish people. 

According to Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, three ships of Jews escaping the persecutions sailed south from Eilat.  They turned east around the Arabian Peninsula and continued east.  They approached the shores of India and there collided with rock formations in the water.  Out of hundreds who had escaped, only 14 floated to shore.  They lingered there and over the next days the ocean pushed out many of their compatriots who lost their lives.  They buried their fellow Jews there and wandered into the jungle, an unknown territory to where they found a village, and the villagers warmly welcomed them.  That cemetery is still there today.

Nearly 2,000 years later, a Jewish businessman working for the Dutch East India Company was in that territory for the firm.  When he approach the locals, he began to describe his personal needs during his two to three week stay – regarding Shabbat, and food, and all the locals said, “Sure, we already know these things.”  How did they know?  They described their neighbors who also followed these practices.  The man went to meet the neighbors.  They did indeed know about Shabbat.  They did know about Kosher even though they could not remember how to perform the slaughter properly anymore.  They only remembered 2 words of their ancient language, ‘Shema Yisrael’.  They called themselves, ‘Bnai Yisrael’, the Children of Israel.  The businessman asked them about their religious calendar, and they listed all the holidays – except one.

They listed all the holidays except Chanukah.


Because they left the Holy Land before the struggle was over, before fellow Jews declared the holiday after the victory and rededication of the Temple.

The Bnai Yisrael eventually migrated to the east where they reunited with their fellow Jews, and now there are 90,000 Bnai Yisrael in the State of Israel, and only some 5,000 Jews left in India, and none younger than 42 years old.  But it’s worth mentioning that in southern India, though there are no longer school children in any school in that region – they do not give exams on the Jewish holidays in recognition of the contributions, the honor and the dignity the Jewish community brought to the country.

Could we imagine our winters without Chanukah without the lights, the games, the food, and songs?

More than that, could we imagine our Jewish story without the courage of Matityahu and his sons?

The Bnai Yisrael did not know the outcome.  They did not know we won out in the end and held onto our sovereignty in the Land for 80 years afterwards.

Jacob also does not know the end of his story.  We read this week; “Vayidar Yakov neder…Jacob makes a vow, saying, if God protects me on this journey I am making…”

If God protects me…

It sounds like Jacob is not sure God will be there along the way.  It sounds as though Jacob needs reassurance.

Jacob wants to know God is really there.

The Bnai Yisrael, as Rabbi Tokayer explains, had no contact with other Jews for 2,000 years.  They survived that long on their ancient memories and two Hebrew words, “Shema Yisrael”.

We have plenty of Hebrew and other words to support our Jewish identity.  We have plenty of holidays, events, books, resources and more – far more than the Bnai Yisrael had.

And so what can we learn from them, and from our ancestor Jacob (who also has little to nothing with him on his journey)?

First, Judaism is not a religion about how much do we know or not know.  Level of knowledge is not the metric by which we should evaluate ourselves.

Next, Judaism at its core teaches that life is sacred and valuable; that each breath we take is a blessing of revitalizing energy that we can use to do one more mitzvah.  Each soul is valuable, and while we may not all agree and get along, we can still see those with whom we disagree as having a soul and something to contribute to this world.

And then Judaism teaches us that time is not an illusion, and time, like life, is sacred and valuable.  Shabbat reminds us of this fact as we choose to make one day different to show that, maybe, all other days could be different, too, that all other days could be filled with prayer, community, and an appreciation of the creation that is us and that surrounds us but that, in our daily running, we do not always see.

We come here on Shabbat to reaffirm these central beliefs of our faith but also to reaffirm belief in ourselves – that each of us is a leader who can carry the message, no matter how difficult the road is.  Like Jacob, the Maccabbees, and the Bnai Yisrael, we’re always walking uphill but happily so, singing the praises of the Creator who enables us each day to have a chance to bring our vision of kedushah, holiness, to our community and even to the furthest reaches of the globe.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

After the Election: What happens now?

Over the past two weeks since the Presidential election, I've read countless reactions to the election itself, reflections on the State of the country, and reactions appointees to Cabinet and White House posts.  Responses across the country have ranged from reflective thinking and writing to boisterous protests.

As an American citizen, I'm concerned at every change of administration, perhaps more so on some occasions than others.  Will the candidates fulfill their campaign pledges?  Will a spirit of unity carry us forward no matter who wins?  Will my future and my children's future be more safe and secure?

The rhetoric and tone of this particular election was harsh, worse than mudslinging I'd heard in previous elections, but maybe only worse in degrees at this level since equally repugnant mudslinging  was happening in other elections, and in local politics where I live now it seems that there are few public officials who are not under indictments for corruption.

I'm reminded of a billboard sign that used to hang next to the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  It read, "Calm down!  Anxiety fuels recessions."  Many today feel that 'keep calm' is not wise advice.  Many today feel we must speak up and speak out.  This response does fit will within the American democratic spirit.  We cannot dispute the election results themselves, unless compelling evidence arises, but we must always be ready to make sure that those who represent us know well what values we expect to drive policy-making decisions and votes.

The thoughts I'm expressing here were motivated by a passage I read in Malcolm Gladwell's 2013 book David and Goliath (Published by Little Brown & Company).  He shares the story of Andre Trocme, a Huguenot Pastor, who was serving the the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during the World War 2 years.  At the first Sunday service following Germany's occupation of France, Trocme preached a sermon:  "Loving, forgiving, and doing good to our adversaries is our duty.  Yet we must do this without giving up, and without being cowardly.  We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the Gospel.  We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate." (Gladwell, 2013, p. 264)

Trocme's heartfelt and defiant tone strikes a balance between maintaining the open-heartedness that faith demands while also calling up the courage that faith also asks us to have in the face of adversity.

Pastor Trocme's spirit can be a guide for us as we gauge how we will conduct ourselves and how we will respond to the varieties of challenges our country faces now.  His approach enabled his parishioners to save the lives of 5,000 refugees, of which 3,000-3,500 were Jews.

May we have the strength to live out his spirit and message today.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Noah - We're all in the same boat

We’ve all heard the expression, we’re all in the same boat.

Meaning, we’re all in the same situation.  No one has any advantage over anyone else.  The same challenges, the same benefits.

Some have speculated the expression comes from the sinking of the Titanic, when upper class passengers found themselves, literally, in the same boat as steerage passengers.  Everyone was together, and in that togetherness, status itself was not relevant or significant.

As we approach election day, I cannot help but think about our country in light of the story of Noah that we read from today.  Noah, his wife Na’amah, his children and their families, all are together, along with all the animals of the world – all in the same boat.

Let’s clarify one significant point about the word ‘boat’.  An Ark is not a boat.  It does not have a rudder.  It does not have oars for steering.  Like a rubber ducky in the bathtub, the Ark goes where the current takes it – really, where God directs it.  And so when Noah, Na’mah, and family say, ‘We’re in the same boat’ – It’s an even stronger expression because they are completely in God’s hands.

I cannot help but think about our country as the boat.

And all of us, of different backgrounds, different political beliefs, different levels of Jewish identification, we all are living under the laws of this country, and, we’re responsible for keeping those laws and creating community here no matter who gets elected to local, state, and federal offices.

After the election on Tuesday, no matter the result, it will be up to us to decide what will be the next meaningful steps to strengthening the democracy in which we live so that we can continue to shape our country, and so our children will have the chance to shape our country when they’re ready for voting and civic action.

Clearly, not all human beings got onto the boat, only Noah and his family.  The Torah describes the rest of the world as lawless and corrupt, and, sadly, tragically, unworthy of being saved.  While this is a story, it is a difficult story, one that reminds us how many people, good people, righteous people, even right here in our own community, feel left out, without a sense of belonging or connection.  Like those swept away by the floodwaters, so many people with meaningful ideas and energy they want to give, never get the chance.

The Rabbis imagined that the wicked generation of the flood surround the Ark and are trying to smash it, break it, destroy it, as the rains start to fall.  God steps to protect Noah’s family – the lions and bears retaliate, and God closes them in. 

But let’s reimagine this teaching.  Let’s reimagine it as the people outside the Ark are the people who would like to be part of the community, part of the Jewish community.  They would like to participate, volunteer, learn, just feel more Jewish but they don’t know how or just cannot find the right bridge or entry point.

And in this case, let’s take our reimagining one step further – we open up the door to the Ark and we welcome them on board, with a hello, a handshake, and an invitation to look around. 

We’re here today for a variety of reasons – because we choose to be, because there’s a special occasion that draws us here, maybe someone else brought us.  My prayer is that when we leave, we take something with us, a feeling, a sense of connection, of being part of something special, and we invite one other person to join us the next time.  We invite someone else to our house on Friday to light candles together, to share a tasty challah.  We get together in a small group to study a topic of interest, to see how thousands of years of Jewish ideas and experiences can help us sort out the difficult questions.  We hold someone’s hand who may be sitting here with us but is far away emotionally, in a world of crisis and hurt, hold their hand just long enough so they know they’re not alone.

The story of Noah is a story of great loss.  Very few survive the cataclysm, a destruction made all the more powerful to behold because just last week we read Braysheet ba’ra, God created the world, and hineh tov me’od, behold God saw the world was very good.  How could everything have gone so wrong so quickly?

Now though we have a chance, together, in the same boat as we all are here in the USA, to reimagine our own surroundings, regardless of the result of the Tuesday election, to reimagine them as a place where our Jewish values set the tone instead of our fears, where we are constantly on the lookout for mitzvah opportunities, and where donkeys and elephants are just two examples of the wonders of God’s creation.