Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Mothers Day

What is the purpose of Mother’s Day? Are we to do what most Americans do and spend on average $172.22?1 Are we supposed to go to a special brunch? Are we to buy some flowers?
In 1870 when Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist and author of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," proclaimed a day for women I’m not sure if today’s observance is what she had in mind. She wrote of the day this poem and proclamation:

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of fears! Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience."
We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says "Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."

This proclamation I believe was intended to remind us that we need to come together to create peace and harmony, and that it is mothers, daughters and wives who suffer when violence and    tyranny are allowed to run rampant.

I think perhaps that we often take the relationship that we have with our mothers for granted. For those of us like myself who were blessed to have a mother with whom I was extremely close, the pain of Mother’s Day this year is all the more palpable. But for those who do not or did not experience that kind of closeness, Mother’s Day can be challenging in a different way.

Rabbi Honan shared the wisdom with me that it was me who made my mom a mom. Before my birth she was a wife and a daughter and a friend, but then I came and made her a mom. I realized that truth is fundamental, yet it is the case that I made her a mom and she made me a daughter. It was our existence which made each other’s reality possible. It was our treatment of each other which made that reality a beautiful place to live in. And now it is the absence of her which leaves a hole in my heart.

Mother’s Day should be a day when we contemplate, in the words of Julia Ward Howe, the need for peace and the value of life. It should be a day when we recognize that we are not individuals existing in a vacuum; rather our existence and identity depends on others around us. It was Miriam whose existence provided water through her traveling well to nourish the Israelite
in the desert.

“One glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, unites all living things. All things existing continuous reciprocal activity - one for all, all for one. None has power, or means, for itself; each gives in order to receive, and receives in order to give, and finds there in the fulfillment of the purpose of its existence.” 2


2“Third Letter” Nineteen Letters about Judaism by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.  P. 26 of spirit in nature teaching Judaism in ecology 

Friday, January 27, 2017

How to Go Forward

I had a call from a colleague and friend today, asking and wondering how do we live life when the world seems to be spinning in ways we did not expect it to be? What do we do when we are fearful?

I would like to share my response because I believe that it will inspire you.

The first chapter of the book of Habakkuk is essentially a long complaint followed by God’s response. It then continues with yet another complaint and another response from God. The book concludes with a prayer or a Psalm from Habakkuk. This book was written, proceeding the fall of Babylon, yet the date of composition of the book cannot be guaranteed just by perusing the book itself. Most likely, individuals who lived after the fall Babylonia in 539 BCE understood much of this book is a meditation on life in an unjust world. They wondered how to relate to God when nations “slays nations without pity,” and “seize homes not their own.”  What do we do when individuals do not place thier trust in God, and how can a pious person deal with this unwieldy situation?

God responds that the answer is clearly written on tablets, perhaps as described in the book of Deuteronomy.

He then says:
הִנֵּ֣ה עֻפְּלָ֔ה לֹא־יָשְׁרָ֥ה נַפְשׁ֖וֹ בּ֑וֹ וְצַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָת֥וֹ יִחְיֶֽה׃
“Lo, his spirit within him is puffed up, not upright, But the righteous man is rewarded with life For his fidelity.” (Habakkuk 2:4)

This verse, initially describes a person whose life is swollen with not good things and who lives a twisted or  unjust life. Perhaps it is one full of deception or one full of egotism. It then moves to a pious person whose faith is in God even under the most dire circumstances. Even though they must live life where justice is delayed or denied, that time according to God will be short-lived. Habakkuk goes on to draw a parallel with Isaiah chapter 11:9, that there will be a time when everyone will know God...

Perhaps today we wonder and struggle, what can we do to make this world a better place? To me the answer is that the most impact we will have is on those who surround us. It is their lives that we can make better. We can speak up when we see injustices, and we can remove blind spots by becoming more aware of the world around us and the systems that work in it – systemic poverty and racism for example. We need to focus our energies on walking in the footsteps of God as a community. The book of Habakkuk ends by saying: “my Lord God is my strength: he makes my feet like the deer’s and lets me stride upon the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:19).   

For me God is found inside of us all and when we unite our hands together we can bring the divine into this world through our very actions.  It is my prayer that we live our lives full of tackling difficult and challenging issues, causing ourselves to grow and become better individuals and communities more focused on God and assisting those around us.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Will We Have Faith and Will Our Faith Have Children?

“Rachel is weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.” — Jeremiah 31:14

This excerpt from the book of Jeremiah seeks to highlight the pain and anguish that the Israelites experienced upon their exile to Babylonia. Jeremiah stood in the moment of deep pathos. The poetry of Jeremiah describes Rachel weeping and her fear that there will be no more children - there will be no more future. The anguish of wondering about the future when all appears as barrenness and desolation is the fear of loss encapsulated in her very being.

Jeremiah saw the Temple burn, he saw the charred city walls, he saw an absence of the royal court, he named the names of those carried away to Babylonia. Jeremiah took note of the brutality of the Babylonians, the damage incurred to the land, the loss of life, the undervalued women damaged and focused instead on the human cost and the human heart. He saw that the exiles were not statistics on the nightly news nor numbers to appear in a book, but that each of the people who died or were captured had mothers and fathers who cared for them, who made them suppers and taught them how to tie their shoes.

The gift that Jeremiah has given us is a language to help us grieve over loss and brutality. He forces us to ask, will we have faith in the face of uncertainty and fear, and will our faith have children? I think it is only fitting that Jeremiah used the metaphor of Rachel weeping for her children. The agony of a mother who has given birth, and experiences the pain of labor only to lose her child to death is something we can relate to even today. Simply put, there is no comfort. The people who lost their lives or were exiled, have evaporated into NOT. “Your injury is incurable, Your wound severe” (Jeremiah 30:12).

The miracle of Jeremiah is that he takes the pain of humanity and causes it to become the verbalization of God’s pain over the exile: “Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me, A child that is dandled! Whenever I have turned against him, My thoughts would dwell on him still. That is why My heart yearns for him; I will receive him back in love —declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:20). It is not enough that we ourselves are in agony but that even God is in agony for us. Hosea touched on this briefly and other prophets dangled their toes in the water of describing God’s pain but it was Jeremiah who had the courage to do so. Instead of this being God’s punishment inflicted upon us and God judging us harshly, God was described as a grieving mother for her children and her future. Even God is described therefore as helpless. Perhaps God is wondering why history has taken such a ruthless course and expressing an enigmatic yearning for something more compassionate to be revealed during human history.

Today, Jeremiah reminds us to also recognize that as much as we are crying out and wondering why we’re in the agony of loss, God is there as well. That God is embracing us even in the darkness because God is like a grieving mother, an image we can all relate to. I hope to bring the poetry and prose of Jeremiah alive so that perhaps we can find the words to explain not only our feelings but a recognition that our feelings are not in isolation nor are we alone in them. We are at a time in our nation’s history and a point in Jewish history of both excitement and fear. This time is significant but not wholly unique. Perhaps in the study of Jeremiah we can find great comfort and inspiration.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Unity Matters Now

On November 8, 2016 this country elected a man to the presidency who has never held public office. He has never served in our military. No major network or news group predicted his win. This historic event has troubled many. Some have expressed anger and rage, while others are confused and fearful. The future is unclear and for this reason my thoughts go to a story in the book of Samuel.
The people wanted to be ruled by a king. The advantages of a monarchy were idealized; a strong, centralized government with a strong leader to make the people feel secure. But Samuel pointed out a monarchy would also bring heavy taxation, forced labor, and conscription of their sons into an army and their daughters into servitude.
But the people were looking for change and a new model of leadership. The people felt their voices were not heard. We learn from Samuel that the citizens who bear the burden of government tend to be those who are the least able to speak up. Samuel warned that when they were servants to God’s demands God still heard them and made allowances. But now they will be exploited by a king who will not judge them in mercy and love.  (1 Samuel 8:17). 
Samuel prayed to God for guidance. God told Samuel “heed their demands and appoint a king for them.” (1 Samuel 8:22). And so he did. And Samuel's warnings came to pass - the people were burdened greatly by heavy taxation and forced labor; but they also built great cities because of the vision and leadership of the king.
Samuel's warning rings true today. The vision and strong leadership of a new administration creates an obligation to ensure that that government does not exploit those who cannot speak for themselves. We must ensure that all voices are heard.
I recently organized a unity prayer service in Huntsville, Alabama.[1] I gathered together more than 200 people from all walks of life, including various faith leaders and elected officials. This group of souls gathered to march on their soles to show unity and love for all. Together we set the example of our highest selves by marching seven times around Temple B'nai Sholom, just as the Israelites marched around Jericho until the walls tumbled, to symbolically break down the walls which divide us from one another. To me, this concept was perfectly illustrated by the participation of leaders from our Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, LGBTQ, and Atheist communities. When we reach out to others we recognize the divinity in them and create an I-Thou[2] relationship.
For me, the highlight of the service was the shaking hands and hugging between Rep. Phil Williams (R) and Rep. Laura Hall (D) from the Alabama Legislature. They both rose to the occasion to demonstrate what leadership should be – working together for the benefit of everyone they serve.
I am personally inspired and filled with the renewed hope that President-elect Trump's presidency affords us by underscoring the need to create I-Thou relationships.
My hope is that we find the courage to travel this new path together where we can sing the songs of unity.

[1] http://whnt.com/2016/11/13/local-church-hosts-unity-rally/
[2] https://www.amazon.com/I-Thou-Martin-Buber/dp/1578989973

Friday, October 14, 2016

Yom Kippur Yizkor Thoughts

Image result for yizkor candle

One of the greatest gifts of Yom Kippur is that we take the time to be contemplative, to be present with one another, to bare our souls to God and to remember our loved ones who have gone before.  This Yizkor service gives us an opportunity to remember that we are simply a link in the chain of tradition stretching back to Moses.  We are individuals woven into the fabric of humanity and the greater world – something that can be easily forgotten as we go about our busy days. 

Yom Kippur’s rituals require us to “check-in” with ourselves and God.  
Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel was walking in a field with one of his students, who reached down and plucked a leaf off of a plant.  Rav Kook responded: “believe me when I tell you I never simply pluck a leaf or blade of grass or any living thing unless I have to.  Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song and breathing forth a secret of the divine mystery of creation.”   Let’s us take a moment to hear the divine song around us, singing to us encouraging us on even in our grief. 

Please take a deep breath and close your eyes.

Perhaps you can hear God calling out to you. 

For some of us, only when we are in a state of absolute vulnerability can we hear God.  Please allow yourself to enter that state of openness. 

As we open ourselves up to God, let us also recall our loved ones who helped us arrive at this juncture.  Please also take a moment to thank them. 

Please take another deep breath. 

Lastly, death is a reminder that life is part of a cycle:
“Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage –
To life everlasting.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Getting Ready for Yom Kippur

Every year we read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur. The reading in the afternoon marks a dramatic conclusion for a day of fasting, praying, and introspection. A time in which we truly reconsider our lives, our deeds, and how to best return to God. Often times we are blind to the things which we really need to repent for. Sometimes we can be blinded by greed, selfishness, insecurities or even our ego. It is an extremely painful thing to realize that a mistake was made. Sometimes that realization can only happen years after that incident occurred when our emotions are finally at ease and our insecurities are at a rest.

It is amazing how our personal urge to be the best can sometimes lead us into the most complicated of situations. These situations can be challenging to extract ourselves from. We are scared that we lack the inner strength to be able to overcome them. We have trepidations about our own ability to grow and change in order to become a more whole person.

It was God who called out to Jeremiah saying: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations.” (1:5). A powerful statement from which we learn that God knows our ability to grow. This ultimately is a statement of hope, I believe. The Redak (a medieval commentator) retranslated that verse to say “when I had not yet formed you in the womb, I made you great, and when you had not yet emerged from the womb, I sanctified you.” He was attempting to answer the question of a) are we born evil? and b) was Jeremiah given special instruction so that he would pop out ready to be a prophet? Since most prophets rejected their calling from God initially, was this a sign that Jeremiah did not reject his calling? No, this was saying that we are all made great and that we have all been sanctified by God. That God calls upon us to engage in life. We are asked and called by God to engage in the process of teshuvah when we find ourselves entrapped in one of those complications. We are further called to be in this process every year as a sort of reset button on our life. Our specific calling according to this verse is in fact to be “a light to the nations.” We accomplish this by simply being a light to those around us.

In this case, I would offer my translation of the word navi or prophet to be an example. We are supposed to engage in the teshuvah process to be both a light to those around us and bring us closer to God. When we recognize the divine light within ourselves and the divine light within others perhaps we will be more ready to engage in a process of teshuvah.

This is a process in which we would engage and become more intimate with God, grow in our maturity and develop stronger relationships with those around us. It helps us to channel our anger, fear, and doubt into a statement of profound loving faith by our very actions.

May you all be blessed with the knowledge that you have the ability to engage in this process. May you find within yourself the courage to do so. May we be blessed with a sweet healthy and happy new year.

Shannah Tovah!