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!

Learning from our Doubt - Rosh Hashanah Morning

There is no owner’s manual explaining how to live life. I wish there were. But the truth is, we are all human. We all make mistakes, we all struggle and strive to be better, we all have blind spots about who we are and at various times we all live in denial. It's called the human condition.
I would like for you to hold out your index finger and imagine that it is ruler. From the base of your finger is the span of your life. At the base of your finger signifies when you were born and at the tip when you will die. Now hold up your other hand and take your index finger and your thumb and make a “C.” Determine how much longer you have in this life. My God, that's all the time I have left.
With that amount of time left, I ask myself, how will I live my life? What decisions can I make when presented with various situations so that I am living out my personal life’s motto?

This beautiful Rosh Hashanah morning we read about Abraham and the decision that he made with Isaac. He was told by God; go sacrifice your son Isaac. Abraham decided to carry out that commandment.
Do any of us really hear the voice of God calling down to as clearly as Abraham did? I don’t. I study, I pray, I meditate and hope that I make the right decision. After all, the decisions that I make impact my life and everyone in it, including this congregation. When should I speak up on a subject? When does holding up a mirror of truth to a congregant help them? When does it hurt them? To be a Congregational Rabbi requires a certain amount of artistry. It is an art that I am still learning and I thank you for allowing me to explore and grow with you.
But now back to Abraham. Many conclude that Abraham did not have a decision to make but that he was simply following the commandment he received from God.  But there are some rabbis who point out that Abraham did indeed make a decision. After hearing the word of God, Abraham walked for 3 days to mount Moriah. The Midrash says that Satan appeared to him on each day asking:  “Are you silly and foolish that you would go and do this thing to your only son?” [1]  We can think of Satan as that little voice of doubt and fear inside Abraham as he was making his decision.
We so often don’t know if what we do is right or wrong. Making decisions is really hard. We want to believe that we are good people and God will protect us and help us make decisions. I’m reminded of the story of the man who was in a flood. He heard the radio report of the rising waters and went up to his roof knowing that because he was such a good man God would save him. A rowboat came by and offered to take him to safety. The man said, "No. God will save me." A helicopter came by and offered him a ride. "No. God will save me." The man died in the flood and when he got up to heaven he asked God, "Why didn't you save me from the flood? Why did you let me down?" God responded, "I sent you a radio report, a rowboat, and a helicopter. What else could I possibly do for you?"
We learn from this that faith is not enough. We must make decisions and take action in our own lives. We must use our faith as a guide for us in making those decisions. 
One of the most poignant stories I have read in the Talmud is of the death of Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai. As he was dying, he knew that his death was imminent. His disciples and students came to visit him. This was a long time custom the rabbis had - to offer one last lecture. As they walked into the room, the dying rabbi began to weep. His students asked, "Why are you weeping?" He responded, "My death is near and I'm unsure if I'm going to heaven with God or Gehinnom – the Jewish version of hell. I am about to face my final judgment."
Though few of us live our lives like Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai, a number of commentators offer reasons explaining why he had fear and doubt at the realization of his final judgment. During the siege of Jerusalem danger was everywhere and the leadership, including Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai, was divided about what decision to make and what action to take. Some offered faith statements that God would come in and protect the Jewish people from Rome, others believed military strength was the answer and attempted to wage a guerrilla war against the Roman Empire. But Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai offered a third option. His option would attempt to bring the nation some peace while still working with the Roman Empire.
Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai met with his nephew who was the head of a group of zealots called the Saccari who was among those engaged in guerrilla warfare by stabbing people to death around the city.
He asked Saccari: "How long are you going to carry on in this way and kill all the people…?" 
Saccari responded that he had lost control of the people and he would be killed if he spoke up.  He told Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai to plan a way to escape the city.
He advised Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai: "Pretend to be ill, and let everyone come to inquire about you. Bring something evil smelling and put it by you so that they will say you are dead. Let then your disciples get under your bed, but no others, so that they shall not notice that you are still light, since they know that a living being is lighter than a corpse." (BT Gittin 56a)
Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai took his nephew's advice and escaped Jerusalem in a coffin. He went to a small city called Yavneh and committed to create a Beit Din or a house of rabbinical judgement and study.

He gave up the idea that Jerusalem as the heart of the Jewish people, and instead made the community's synagogue the heart. This was a radical departure from the past. Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai posited that the Torah was to be studied and revered. He decreed that the way of praying to God was no longer through sacrifice but through liturgy.
Just as an aside, several of his new decrees which became law including: the blowing of the shofar on Shabbat, the "day of waving," the taking of the lulav outside of the Temple, the acceptance of testimony concerning the new moon (Neusner, Development of a Legend, 206–9).
I’ve heard this story many times in many different texts. As a rabbinical student we were taught the story because Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai   was the founder of rabbinic Judaism. I think it was no small accident that Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai   went out of Jerusalem in a coffin. It was symbolic of the death of the temple cult as the center for the community. Leadership was to be in line with his contemporaries and his students such as Rabban Gamliel and his disciples and descendants after him. 
I want to highlight that not everybody was thrilled with the decisions that Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai  made.  Rabbi Yosef, or some say, Rabbi Akiva, applied to him the verse: “[God] turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish” (Isaiah 44:25).  [When Ben Zakkai met with the Emperor of Rome for the safety and security of Yavneh] he should have used the opportunity to ask the Emperor to leave Jerusalem alone. But he thought that such a request might be rejected and he would thus forfeit an even smaller salvation. (Gittin 56b) The debate raged for many generations between rabbis and Jews who had nationalistic tendencies and those who leaned toward pragmatism. 
Looking back we can see the value of what Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai   did. He attempted to create a path to prepare the Jewish people for life following the war with Rome. In the same regard, as we discussed last night, the prophet Jeremiah did the same thing.
Most of us are not leaders of a nation whose decisions have a profound impact on generations to come. Most of our names will not be recorded in the annals of history.  Most of us do not hear God commanding us to sacrifice our children.  Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai even questioned his decision of how he went about saving the Jewish people on his deathbed. 
We all have decisions to make. It is the circumstances of our lives that tend to dictate those decisions. I can look back and realize how the decision Uzi and I made to move to Huntsville, Alabama has impacted us. That decision has been a blessing to me just as I have always worked hard to be a blessing to you.

I've shared with you some positive decisions from our history. Abraham went to mount Moriah and his faith was renewed. Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai helped saved the Jewish people.
But what about the consequences of a bad decision?
When Moses received the 10 Commandments, the Jewish people gave in to their doubt and fear during his 40 day absence and made a fateful decision. They created a golden calf to worship.
God spoke to the people and said: “God, God, a compassionate and gracious God, long-suffering and magnanimous and true love, keeping that love for the multitudes, forgiving sin, transgression, and the misdeeds, but surely not cleansing them entirely, revisiting the sins of the fathers upon their children, down to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7). 
This passage was adopted into our liturgy somewhat early on in the formation of our liturgical practices in the early rabbinic period started by Rabbi Yahaan ben Zakkai.  It was altered to say: “God, God, a compassionate and gracious God, long-suffering and magnanimous and true love, keeping that love for the multitudes, forgiving sin, transgression, and misdeed, and cleansing!”
The rabbis transformed the verse in the Bible from “not cleansing” to “cleansing.”  The rest of the verse is about revisiting the sins of the father upon their children down through the generations was also cut.  God no longer seeks retribution and punishment upon unclean sinners. God forgives us and cleans us in unconditional compassion. At every opportunity, we are taught that even if we make bad decision, we have an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over.
We will make mistakes. I have made some mistakes. I am a human rabbi. The humanity in me allows me to see the humanity in you and to unconditionally love you and help bring you closer to God. Sometimes I view us like little plants, we struggle to reach toward the sun. Sometimes we are blocked by shades from trees; sometimes there’s something about the inherent nature of the plants which makes for the reaching a challenge, but I believe that there’s an inner force inside of us that reaches out toward God to obtain nourishment. That nourishment for me has and always will be love.
The first step in the process of repentance is not between us and God. The first step is in recognizing that we erred.  Only then can we correct the error by naming it and apologizing.  Apologizing to ourselves and/or others. Together can we grow into a beautiful garden of flowers reaching out toward God.

After all, as Jeremiah taught: Blessed is one who trusts in God,
Whose trust is in God alone.
That person shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by stream:
It does not sense the coming of the heat,
It leaves shall be forever fresh and luxuriant;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

The decisions we make will not always be the best ones, but if we look at and examine life as an opportunity to grow, then our decisions will help us reach the sun and be nourished by God's love. May you grasp this opportunity for tushvah, repentance, and make the most of it. After all, we need to make our life here on Earth count!
Shannah Tovah!!!!!!!!!!

[1] Legends of the Jews p.226-7