Friday, March 3, 2017

Parshat Terumah 5777/2017: Make For me (For us) A Sanctuary

Make me a Sanctuary
Terumah 2017/5777

     My Hebrew high students and I this week were studying the history of Jews in the United States.  The first of us came here in 1654.  We found out that 7,000 Jews served in the union army during the Civil War and 3,000 Jews served in the confederate army during the Civil War.  We heard historians describe how old world myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes about Jews migrated to the US.  And while George Washington himself extended prayers and blessings to the Jewish community anti-Semitism lingered and bubbled up from time to time, often at moments of crisis.  Confederate politician Judah P. Benjamin reached the highest echelon of southern leadership, but when the Confederates started to lose ground, other Southern leaders lashed out at him, blamed him, and targeted him with ant-Jewish screed.
     We’ve seen tragically how the same has happened in a troubling wave – JCCs and Jewish schools threatened in 33 states including right here in Plainview, a bullet through the window of a synagogue in Indiana, Jewish cemeteries desecrated in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and now Rochester.
     Like the uplifting message from George Washington, the response of fellow Jews, other faith groups, and leaders, has been support, solidarity, and mutual aid.  When I went to Philadelphia this past Tuesday to help out at Mt. Carmel cemetery, there were people of all faith and ethnicities there.  America came to Philadelphia, the city of ‘Brotherly Love’. 
     But like our ancestors in the wilderness, somewhere in between Egypt and the Holy Land, we find ourselves now perhaps feeling a bit less secure and more concerned.  Is this where the hatred will end, or will it escalate?  The German Jewish writer Heinrich Heine wrote a compelling teaching, one that is now inscribed in the ground in plaza in Berlin, “Wherever they burn books, in the end human beings will come to the same fate.”  But we should not be alarmed so much as aware.  We should not cower in fear, but stand in confidence, solidarity, strength, and resolve.  The strength of gathering here to pray, to be with friends and fellow community members, celebrating a bat mitzvah, singing, and opening our hearts to God and God’s teachings – all these things are an intentional response to hate, a response that can give us the strength to endure.
     We need the community around us.  We need to make sure each and every person, young, in the middle, and older, feels like he or she is welcome here and included. No one here should feel left out because we are all one family.  All of us are valuable in God's eyes and all of us deserving a place at the same table of fellowship.
     In today’s Torah reading we heard God say, “Ve’asu li mikdash ve’sha’chanti be’to’cham.”  ‘Make for me a holy place that I may dwell amongst them.’  That I may dwell amongst them – God is not interested in having an elaborate place to live.  God is interested in a place that symbolizes God’s Presence for the entire people, a place where God’s She’chinah, God’s earthly manifestation, can energize all the people from the center of the encampment as all the tribes surround the holy place over 40 years of wandering. 
     The Midrash explains (Pesikta Zutarta Lekach Tov) that through the Mikdash, the holy place, God shows love for the people by placing part of Godself there, literally squeezing Godself into that space – that space that everyone shares but only a select few priests and Levites may enter.  It’s similar to the statue of liberty, a beautiful monument to freedom that a small group of people can enter but that stands as a bright light of hope and unity to everyone else.
     The more connected we can be, the stronger we can be as we confront the most recent surge of hate.  Before we leave here today, introduce yourself to someone here you do not know, find out their story, share your own; join us to pray on Shabbat and during the week, join us next Saturday night when we read the Megillah and celebrate our striving to overcome the intolerance and suspicion and violence that enemies seek to do with joyful singing and the sense of humor that has helped us get through painful times past.  Today is a day to seek and celebrate everything that draws us together and to push aside all the minor and trivial things that too often divide us.  May our hearts be open, our minds be flexible, and our spirits willing to animate us in this holy and necessary work.


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.