Friday, December 21, 2012

Theology and Action: Reflections from Rabbi Robert Levine

I wanted to share with you the words of my mentor, the senior rabbi of my congregation, Rabbi Robert Levine. These went out to the congregation earlier this week:


Prior to my coming to Congregation Rodeph Sholom in 1990, I was rabbi in Danbury, CT., which is adjacent to Newtown. Some of my members came from that lovely town. I have driven to Newtown and Sandy Hook countless times and I am familiar with the location of the school, the firehouse, the churches that filled our TV screens after this unspeakable tragedy.

Newtown is as quiet and bucolic as depicted. Obviously their peace and holiday preparations were utterly shattered by a perpetrator armed with weaponry no individual should have access to, harboring enormous magazines filled with bullets spewing out death and destruction that he had no business being able to possess.

We are justifiably outraged at this unspeakable assault and at him, but we also need to turn our pain and anger to positive use by doing everything we can to enact federal legislation to help curb the NRA’s stranglehold on gun discussions in this country. Personally I would want as much gun control as we can get, together with real penalties for those who possess such deadly firearms. Get these instruments of destruction out of the hands of all but law-enforcement personnel. Period.

The political landscape thankfully, appears to be changing on this issue, but the window for meaningful action may close quickly. The President will have to lead, Congress will have to have a backbone, we, the people, must demand.

Over the past days the President has been an eloquent comforter-in-chief. He was genuinely anguished and seemed quite resolved. Yet, I must firmly disagree with one theological reflection he offered the nation, that “God has called them home.”

No, Mr. President, God has nothing to do with this unspeakable act. God wanted these precious children and their educators to enjoy full, happy lives. The God I have a relationship with cannot swoop down to stay the hand of the depraved and the ill. God does give us the inspiration to learn from our actions and do better next time. God does implant within us the strength to go on, the hope that as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will one day see the light. God does expect us to do something meaningful about gun violence.

As we always do at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, we will add our voice and influence whenever and wherever we can....

We’ll hug our kids tighter and resolve not to fail them in the months ahead.

The prophet Isaiah envisioned a time when nation shall not lift up a sword against nation. Never could he imagine that individuals would one day lift up assault weapons and end the dreams of children. The stakes are so much greater today, and the penalty for failure all the more grave.

May God comfort these grief-stricken families.

May we resolve to reduce their numbers and finally protect our children.

We wish you a safe and blessed New Year.

Rabbi Robert N. Levine

So, it's just a few hours until Shabbat. Here are some ways you can, right now, resolve to "turn our pain and anger to positive use":

1) President Obama has promised to send proposals for gun control legislation to Congress no later than January. Click here to write to your legislators and urge them to support a reenactment of the federal ban on assault weapons and other sensible gun control.

3) Noah Pozner, one of the victims of the shooting, loved tacos. Tacos for Noah lets you make virtual tacos in Noah Pozner's memory. If you are so moved, you can also send real tacos in his memory to people are still struggling without their stoves and ovens in the Rockaways.

Looking for more ideas? See this piece from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for more ideas of what you can do.

Wishing us all a Shabbat Shalom, if that's possible.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Be a Lamplighter: A Reflection on #Newtown and Darkness

I have a bunch of blog posts brewing in my head, but felt like I couldn't write anything until I wrote about Newtown. But, what could I say? What can I say? I've been almost wordless all week, focusing intensely on the lights of Chanukah last week, and trying to imagine how we can continue to shine light into the darkness. What can I say?

I was struck by a story I heard on NPR, about St. Rose of Lima, the Catholic church in Newtown, which--like many houses of worship--was overflowing on Sunday following the shootings. In its pews were students, friends of those children; in its pews were parents, looking for comfort and consolation; in its pews were mourners, one of their own children-scheduled to play an angel in the Nativity Play--had been killed. Her parents were sitting in those pews. 

That poor priest, I thought to myself. What words can he offer? How can he possibly preach?

In the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church, last Sunday was Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, the Christmas season. Gaudete Sunday gets its name from the Latin word "gaudete," meaning rejoice; it is the first word of a certain part of the ceremony. The theme of Gaudete Sunday, then, is joy. And so, he preached on joy. On the need to find it, to celebrate it, to still be able to feel it. What an awesome task; what a sacred responsibility!

One of the educators at my synagogue shared a story last week, in the midst of Chanukah and before the massacre in Connecticut. I think it's an even more important story this week, after the lights of Chanukah have faded and as we struggle to move forward after a national tragedy:

Students come to their rebbe, wondering "What is a Jew? What is our mission in the world." Unsatisfied by his answers about God's commandments and Jewish law, they ask again: "What is a Jew? What is our mission in the world." Finally, the rebbe answers: 

Many years ago, before electricity, there was a person in every town who would light the street-lamps with a light he carried at the end of a long pole. The tall lamps stood there ready on the street-corners, waiting to be lit; sometimes, however, the lamps are not as easily accessible. There are some lamps that stand in far forsaken places, in deserts, or at sea. We need someone dedicated and caring to go out of his way to light even those lamps, so that they may fulfill their purpose and illuminate the paths and walkways. We, each of us, he went on to say, must be a lamplighter--illuminating the world, and helping others find their light.

I'll leave the politics for another post and just say that the world is dark today, my friends. How can you be a lamplighter?

Monday, December 10, 2012

No dilemma here: #Christmas on the UWS

Just before Chanukah began, I had a hugely unpleasant encounter at a neighborhood coffee shop, reminding me that--indeed--anti-Semitism is alive and well, even on the Upper West Side.

So, imagine my delight in seeing a Facebook friend post this:

From the NYT Metropolitan Diary (which is great sermon fodder in general!):

Dear Diary:

Around this time of year, many Jewish parents of young children find themselves saying something like: “We do not celebrate Christmas! We are Jewish. We celebrate Hanukkah. And, no, you cannot have a Christmas tree.”

So it tickled my New York soul to hear the following as I entered the subway station at West 86th Street and Broadway: “We do not celebrate Hanukkah. We are Christian. We celebrate Christmas. And, no, you cannot have a dreidel.”

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Miracle of Miracles: #PopCultureChanukah

Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, began last night. Here are some thoughts that I shared in our congregational bulletin.

Happy Chanukah!

A colleague of mine has started a bit of a Twitter tradition. Before each holiday, she rounds up a bunch of us Jewish professional types, and we create a “pop culture holiday.” Each of us posts song lyrics appropriate to the theme of the holiday. Perhaps Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” for #PopCulturePassover or the Grateful Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain” for #PopCultureShavuot. You all might guess that this year, one of my submissions for #PopCultureElul was “Once In a Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads (see why by reading or listening to my Rosh HaShanah sermon on our website!). As a music lover, pop culture consumer, and Jewish learner—I enjoy seeing these things intersect, and I do think it helps me think differently about the real themes and meanings behind our holiday celebrations.

As I write this, I am getting myself geared up for #PopCultureChanukah. Here’s one to get you started—a classic from the band REO Speedwagon:

And even as I wander, 
I'm keeping you in sight. You're a candle in the window, On a cold, dark winter's night...

I’ve been fortunate to spend several Chanukahs in Israel, including two with Congregation Rodeph Sholom families. Whenever I am there, one of my favorite things to do—in addition to the delicious dulce de leche sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) which I ingest with much gusto—is to simply walk through the streets, particularly of Jerusalem. There is something magical about it; in just about every window—or in front of the house in a specially designed display case—there is a chanukiah shining brightly. There is, indeed, a candle in the window on a cold, dark winter’s night.

There is real significance in where we place the Chanukah lights. The rabbis of the Talmud, in discussing lighting the Chanukah candles, introduce the notion of this very public display. The lights should be lit where others can see, our tradition teaches, because we are supposed to publicize the miracle. This commandment, known in Hebrew/Aramaic as pirsumei nisa, is only commanded on two holidays. We are asked to publicize the miracle on Chanukah, and on Purim.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, an 18th century Hasidic teacher, ask a radical question. He says: Why is Chanukah, even more than Passover, the holiday of miracles? Wouldn’t we, who celebrate the Exodus from Egypt each and every day in our prayer service, think that Passover is the holiday, that the splitting of the sea is the ultimate miracle, the ultimate sign of God’s power? His answer is even more radical than his question, though. He teaches that the reason Chanukah is miraculous is that we did not wait for God. On Chanukah and on Purim, we were agents of our own change.

The dictionary definition of a miracle is “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” Noam Zion, an Israeli educator, suggests that there are four ways that we can understand miracles, four ways that contain both Divine power and human experience.

  1. Public miracles usually violate the laws of nature, in order to teach us to look beyond the physical to a higher realm of reality.
  2. Private miracles are the hidden coincidences that sometimes change the direction of our lives because of amazing timing, which we might understand as Divine destiny.
  3. The laws of nature are themselves a miracle created by God and worthy of wonder.
  4. The Biblical miracles are always associated with historical redemption because they point not to the violation of natural order which is seen as Divinely beautiful, but to the violation of human order which is so often corrupt and oppressive.

The story of Chanukah offers us any number of miracles to celebrate: the miracle of the oil, the miracle of a small group of passionate fighters victorious over a more powerful foe, the miracle of Jewish survival and Jewish identity. And while we may find God’s presence in any one of these miracles, we also know that these were human hands and hearts which prevailed. Later, there is a debate amongst our sages: is the expectation of publicizing the miracle an internal one, meant to strengthen our own faith and commitment? Or is it meant to be external, showing the world who we are and what we believe? Perhaps, in classic Jewish tradition, it needs to be both.

This year, as we prepare to celebrate Chanukah, take a moment to think about the miracles in your life. Join us on December 14 for a joyous celebration of the miracle of community. Think about ways that you, as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak suggest, can be agents of miracle-making, making a difference in the world. Still recovering from Sandy, our city needs us to be miracle-makers!

And, if you have any other song lyrics to suggest, Tweet me @rabbilaufer!  I wish you a joyous Chanukah, filled with light and miracles, and candles in the window on a cold, dark winter’s night.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities: Reflection on a Week of #SandyRelief

I started writing this one last week, but finally got around to finishing it, just in time for Shabbat. This does not even scratch the surface of what needs to be said and done...

Shabbat Shalom.

Confession: Even as a native New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan, I hadn’t spent much (read: any) time in the Rockaways before this storm hit. Perhaps I had driven through on my way to a friend on Long Island (also devastated, by the way). So, I really had no idea what to expect when I arrived, post-Sandy.

The New York Magazine cover, which will certainly become iconic, starkly sets up what a “joking” internet meme had hinted at. Upper Manhattan, housing some of the wealthiest zipcodes in the country—fully lit and powered, our biggest concern being where we might get our latte on Tuesday morning. And Lower Manhattan—which has its share of wealthy zip codes too, but also a huge percentage of Manhattan’s poorest housing projects and immigrant neighborhoods—cold and shivering. It is, as it always has been, a tale of two cities.

Houses and debris in Belle Harbor
7 years ago, I spent two weeks in Mississippi doing relief work after Katrina, first with the URJ’s Jacob’s Ladder and later through a trip I organized through the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis. Most of our time was spent on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, where people had lost everything. Homes had literally been leveled; entire towns were simply piles of driftwood. I saw this echoed in Belle Harbor, NY yesterday; streets covered in sand, residents emptying their entire lives into the streets. I also saw in those residents what I saw in Waveland, in Bay St. Louis, in Pass Christian: resilience, hope, and a strong sense of community. Sunday in Belle Harbor, one resident described the scene on his street: One woman had a sump pump—and we just passed it down the street. As each person finished, he passed it to his neighbor until we got all the water out of the basements. As on the Gulf Coast, the road will be long and bumpy—and mighty cold right now—but, the sense on the ground is that they will get their lives back. Forever changed, but on track.

For most of us, though, the images we carry from Katrina are the ones of desperation—of poor, disenfranchised, mostly black New Orleanians, trapped in their homes, trapped in the Superdome, dying in the heat and the water and the lack of power. Move the image several hundred miles northeast, and substitute heat for cold, and you are seeing what is happening in the other parts of the Rockaways. A mostly black and Latino population, largely poor and disenfranchised from the outset, are freezing and starving in public housing projects that still, over a week after the storm, still have no power, and hence—no heat and no water. The same is true in Coney Island, home to a large population of elderly and disabled, mostly Jewish, mostly immigrant population.

When we teach our Family Bnai Mitzvah program, we spend time discussing our circles of responsibility; we ask: what are the communities of which we are a part, and what are the communities to which we feel responsible. We talk about how we make the decisions about where we volunteer, where we give tzedakah, and we talk about the tensions inherent in making those decisions. Together, we look at a text from Maimonides that talks about these ever expanding circles:

A poor relative takes precedence over all men; the poor of his household before the poor of his city; the poor of his town before the poor of another town; as it says: ‘to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy in your land' (Deuteronomy 15:11) (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 7:13)

Loading a car with supplies for the Rockaways at Congregation Rodeph Sholom
And so, I was moved by the tremendous response to Sandy, not just from my own wonderful synagogue community at Rodeph Sholom, but throughout New York City. Because it is our city, and it is our responsibility. I was moved by the little girl in my community who said: I decided to bring all of my leftover Halloween candy to one of the shelters. I was moved to see the back pews of our Sanctuary filled to the brim with infant supplies and clothing, on its way to Staten Island. I am moved, daily, by the influx of emails and calls and people just showing up, wanting to help. The UJA-Federation of New York sent out a Tweet yesterday, saying “The only good news associated w/ the response from caring people."

I remember distinctly arriving in Waveland, MS just weeks after Katrina. As we began to unload our truck, filled with food and supplies from Jacob’s Ladder, an older gentleman came over to help. He lived in the area, and had lost his house, but was helping one of the Christian charities do—as he called it—the Lord’s Work. He said—and I have never forgotten it to this day—“The storm was an act of nature. What all these folks are doing? This is an act of God.”

The streets of New York City are filled with God’s messengers right now, bringing food and water, medicine and supplies, comfort and presence to the people who need it most. Skilled workers from around the country are working around the clock to try to restore power, heat, and water. These are, deeply, the Lord’s work.

In the weeks, and months, and years ahead—the devastation from Sandy will recede. People will return to their lives, some sooner than others. But all of us will be changed by this storm, and wouldn't it be amazing if we could be changed for the better. Wouldn't it be amazing if  we could be a city changed; no longer two cities—divided by race and class and power, but one—stronger than ever, sharing resources and hopes and dream. Wouldn't it be amazing if a storm that took away power from millions, could shed some light on the deeper issues at play—and show us a way towards change.

That too would be an act of God.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

#HighHolyDay Sermons: Better Late Than Never

Better late than never, finally managed to get my High Holy Day sermons online, in both text and audio format.


Rosh HaShanah: You May Ask Yourself, How Did I Get Here? 

Yom Kippur: Better NOT To Remain Silent

Yizkor: Unfinished Conversations, Unending Relationships 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Spiritual Hangover: A post-#YomKippur dilemma

I'll be posting my High Holy Day sermons soon, but since a few of you on the Twitters wanted to see my words last night (the Shabbat after Yom Kippur), here you go. Shavua Tov:

I can’t shake this feeling that there is something missing.

Maybe it is the weight of a laptop bag missing from my shoulder.

Maybe it is the way I can casually walk by Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf without the anxiety of finding an outlet and an empty table.

Maybe it is  the dining room table that is no longer a temporary workspace, overrun with sermon drafts and notes.

There is a strangeness to these days, the days immediately after Yom Kippur and before Sukkot. And I don’t think I am just saying that because I am a rabbi, because these are our “Superbowl Sunday” or “New York Marathon.” I believe that all of you felt it, feel it, as well. There is something special, even magical, that happens in those moments—our cantors’ majestic voices, the quiet contemplation of Yizkor, the anticipation and excitement building through Ne’ilah. There is this sense, this beautiful, meaningful sense that we are all in it together, that we are not alone, that we can and will make a difference in our lives and in the world.

My colleague, Rabbi Sharon Brous, unknowingly summed up just what I felt as I looked out over the crowds on Wednesday morning. I realized it was, maybe, inappropriate to the day, but I kept smiling as I saw your faces. In her Kol Nidrei sermon this year, she wrote:

It’s that I love that for all of your cynicism, skepticism, discomfort, alienation, marginalization -you still come.  Trying to find something – holding out the possibility that maybe, just maybe something will happen.  So you fight for parking and stand in line and come and sit here on our crummy rental chairs, no idea if the AC will blow out mid-service turning this into a sweat lodge or some kind of bikram davening experience.  You come pretty much knowing it’s not all going to feel good – the day is long and the liturgy is challenging and I’m going to, in some very loving way, kick your spiritual a$% over the course of our time together…But you show up – with your questions of imminence and transcendence, your struggles over life’s meaning and your purpose in the world.

And we do. We struggle, and we strain, we are bored, we are inspired, we are moved, we are “utzy.” We are here. We are together.

And then….havdallah. We separate, literally and figuratively. We all go our separate ways, carrying memories and moments and melodies. We go back—to the emails, the voicemails, the piles that we left on Tuesday afternoon. We go back:

--into a world where rabid anti-Islam fanaticism is plastered in the New York City subway, claiming to speak for me as a Jew.

--into a world where the vision of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, democratic, and physical state is unclear, and something to be debated by diplomats and dictators alike.

--into a world where the problems I had, we had, before Yom Kippur, are still there, looming…maybe just a little bit smaller.

It feels jarring. Each year, the day after Yom Kippur feels surreal—even without the exhaustion. I think of it as a spiritual hangover; there’s so much, there’s TOO much in these first 10 days of Tishrei. And so, waking up without it—I felt—maybe we feel—a bit adrift. A bit lonely. Even a bit sad. To say nothing of the ache in my knees!

But, of course, our tradition is wise to the challenge. Our tradition recognizes that, like Moses coming down from the mountain, it is too hard to simply jump right back into the every day. And so, tradition teaches us that—while one can build a sukkah beginning 30 days before the holiday itself, the ideal time to do it is the night after Yom Kippur.  Have a bagel, grab a hammer.

I want to suggest tonight—as we look ahead to Sukkot on Sunday night, that there are two reasons for this. One is traditional, one experiential. Traditional commentaries suggest that we build a sukkah immediately after breaking the fast in order that we go from mitzvah to mitzvah. In other words, we stave off the inevitable—creating this artificial space in which our behavior remains spotless. We don’t give ourselves the time to slide back into old patterns, we move from one thing to the next, barely giving ourselves a chance to reflect on what was before we turn to what will be. It’s a smart tradition, if a difficult one.

But there is a deeply experiential piece of Sukkot, and therein, I think, lies the answer to my dilemma of how to re-enter the world.
Sukkot is, more than any other holiday, a holiday of vulnerability. We are required to be open—open to the elements of wind and rain, of cold or blistering heat. We are expected to be uncomfortable—to not have all of our “stuff,” to live without some of the creature comforts. We are enjoined to leave our homes and possessions and to go out to the sukkah, protected only by the wings of the Divine presence. It’s scary, just like the world. But it is also a space for growth, and for incredible potential.

The High Holy Days are, among other things, a chance to live in the world as it could be. They are a chance to imagine our best selves, and with it—imagine our best world. Cocooned within these walls, it all seems real, it all seems possible. Sukkot is a chance—a requirement—to live in the world as it is. A world where not everyone has comfortable, permanent housing. A world where the custom of ushpizin—of inviting guests—can be an exclusive, hate-mongering experience. A world where the very structures in which we ground our lives—are fragile, impermanent. But, we get to do it surrounded by the Divine Presence, sure only of ephemeral comfort and protection. And it is with that Presence, with that protection, that we can ease ourselves back into life—back into our task of transforming the world as it is into the world as it could be.

Because it is possible. It is real. And we are in it together.

The old-wives tale says that the only cure for a hangover is the tail of the dog that bit you. My cure for the spiritual hangover of Yom Kippur? Sukkot. Come join us Monday morning, study in the sukkah next Saturday, shake lulav and etrog and samachta b’chagecha—rejoice in the Festival. Rejoice in the world as it is, and start building for the world as it could be.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

#BlogElul: Deja Vu, All Over Again

Really, according to the #BlogElul schedule, I should have posted this on Wednesday--as I suppose it most closely corresponds to the idea of change. But, this is the drash I gave last night--mostly on second chances, with a little wayward son thrown in there. It's also a little long for blogging, so, apologies.

Shavua tov.


It’s déjà vu, all over again.

Yogi Berra made this particular quip, he explains, when he witnessed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs in the Yankees' seasons in the early 1960s.

It began to play out, not as a quip but as a terrifying reality, to citizens of the Gulf Coast as they watched Isaac turn from a tropical storm to a hurricane, and turn from the Eastern Seaboard towards their homes. The nation, or—most of us at least—held our breath. Would the levees hold? Or would it be, in the most tragic of ways, déjà vu all over again—same day, same city….same results.

It was, of course, a combination of factors—environmental as well as reactional—that made this story different. The storm was weaker, yes, but the levees were stronger. The winds were lighter, but the preparations were heavier. The rain lasted longer, but the cleanup will be easier. The people of New Orleans, the government of Louisiana, and the President of the United States were determined that the story of Isaac would not be the story of Katrina. Instead, it was a second chance—a chance to learn from past mistakes and do better.

Seems like a good story for this time of year, this reflective season. As Rosh HaShanah draws ever closer, we come ever nearer to the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. And what is Deuteronomy if not, in its very name, a second telling? Scholars love to parse the differences between the laws as given in Exodus and Leviticus and those given in Deuteronomy, hanging theories on a single word. Differences in the recitation of the 10 Commandments have given rise to ritual practice; it is the reason we light two Shabbat candles on Friday nights—in Exodus we are told to remember Shabbat, in Deuteronomy to observe it; the two shining lights remind us of both.

And this week, as we read the litany of laws in Ki Tetzei—laws about wartime morality, sexual boundaries, and forbidden relationships, we find laws aimed at balancing the scales between the haves and the have-nots, laws designed to protect the most vulnerable, laws designed to create an ideal Israelite society. As we read them—well, déjà vu all over again. We heard many of them—in Exodus maybe, certainly in Leviticus. Heck, we heard some of them just last week in Parashat Shoftim. So, what makes this parasha different from all other parshiot?

First, the focus. Scholar Adele Berlin, in her introduction to Ki Tetzei in Torah: A Women’s Commentary, notes that:

Whereas Parashat Shoftim concentrates on public officials, most of the laws in Ki Tetzei are directed at ordinary individuals. What may once have been considered family matters—such as the rights of a lesser-loved wife, the punishment of wayward children, the finding of lost objects—here are matters of concern to the society at large.

And for a second reason that Ki Tetzei is different, is not just a repetition, I want to look for a moment at the wayward son, the ben sorer u’moreh, the text that parents read sometimes wishfully…but mostly in horror.

If a householder has a wayward and defiant son—ben sorer u’moreh—who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon his town’s council shall stone him to death. (Deut. 21:18-21)

Anyone who has parented—or been—a toddler OR a teenager knows that it’s sort of in the job description. Testing limits, psychologists call it today. Defining boundaries. And so what do we do with this text?

The rabbis of the Mishnah take the text and put all sorts of conditions on it. If he ate meat, but did not drink wine—he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he drank wine and did not eat meat, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he ate meat and drank wine, but at a particular time or a particular reason, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he stole something from his father but not his mother, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If he stole something from his mother but not his father, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. If his parents cannot agree on his punishment, he is not declared a stubborn and rebellious son. And so on, and so forth.

And then, even if all of the conditions are met—first they must try to punish him at home. Then, before a Beit Din—a court of three judges. Then, before the High Court—a court of 23. And then, if they want to bring him before the village and have him stoned—the first court has to be present too. Are you following all this?

The Talmud cuts to the chase, however. Ben sorer u’moreh lo haya, v’lot atid l’hiyot. There never has been such a stubborn and rebellious son, and there never will be.

The obvious question is then asked—lamah nichtav? Why was this law written? That you may study it…

I think that this teaching—this terrible, unimaginable teaching—comes to teach us about second chances. And third chances. And fourth chances. It is there precisely to challenge us, to make us ask: what are the unmovable boundaries. What transgressions are too much? And up until then, what will we do to rebuke, to critique—and to offer another chance.

It is not a coincidence, then, that we read Deuteronomy as we lead up to the High Holy Days, days which are dedicated to the notion that we have a second, third, fiftieth chance to do better, to be better. The message of Elul, of Rosh HaShanah, of Yom Kippur, is the same message we hear each and every Shabbat, it is the message of Deuteronomy, of the prophets: Return us to You,O God, then shall we return. It is the message of God meeting us halfway, of God forgiving the stiffnecked people….and we, the stiffnecked people, managing to turn--even infinitesimally-- back to God, and back to our better selves.

So I return to the floods, for a moment. Our prayers this Shabbat go out to those in Mississippi and Lousiana who are still without power, who are still battling rising waters, who are still reeling from a storm 7 years ago. And so, in their honor and with hope, I offer this teaching that I learned from Rabbi Avi Weiss.

As the days and nights of the flood come to an end, our text tells us that:

And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark and saw, and behold, the face of the ground was dried up. (Gen. 8:13-14)

Since there are several "firsts" in the Biblical calendar, Rashi fairly asks—when was this? And he says—ba-rishon, According to Rabbi Eliezer, this would be Tishrei. Just as Rosh HaShanah celebrates the creation of the world, perhaps even more so does it celebrate a second chance, the end of the flood, the beginning of a new life on earth. It’s déjà vu, all over again. 

And if God gets second chances, shouldn’t we?

Friday, August 24, 2012

#BlogElul, Day 6: On Faith, (or at least Light)

Today's #BlogElul theme is faith. And as I was reading Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr's blog on the subject, I was reminded of something I wrote lo those many years ago, as a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. A classmate organized a group of us to write kavannot (remember, intentions) for the eight nights of Chanukah. I was assigned to write about faith.

So, while this is geared towards the lights of the chanukiah, perhaps it can serve as an intention as you light your Shabbat candles tonight..... 

Shabbat Shalom!!


Each year when I place my candles in the chanukiah, I celebrate the Festival of Lights—a way of bringing light into this very darkest time of the year, and an acknowledgement of my faith that the light will shine after the menorah has burned out. Each one of us, in our own way, has faith in those lights.

This year, these are the faiths with which I light my chanukiah:

With each candle I light, I affirm my faith in my Jewish way of life, just as the Maccabees did with their struggle.

With each candle I light, I acknowledge my faith in the Divine Presence, even though it may seem far or even absent at times.

With each candle I light, I announce my faith that, even in the darkest of times, I will be able to summon a light to guide my path.

With each candle I light, I regain my faith that the Divine Presence will light that path.

With each candle I light, I proclaim my faith in the family and friends with whom I gather around the menorah, for they too are guiding lights of my life.

With each candle I light, I broadcast my faith in miracles, even if they seem to be only the little ones of daily life.

With each candle I light, I publicly declare that I am a person of faith.

With each candle I light, I reclaim the very notion of faith.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

#BlogElul: Lessons From a Non-Yogi: What The #Talmud Taught Me About #Yoga

This is my #BlogElul post, Day 3, which originally appeared at Kol Isha, where I occasionally guest-blog.
The first time she said it, I am pretty sure I rolled my eyes. The second time too. Probably the third and fourth times too. But somewhere along the way, the dimmed lights, candles burning, and the sounds of everyone else’s ujayyi breath lulled me into acquiescence.
I should state, for the record, that I had never been much of a yogi. Give me a good spin class or dance class, or sign me up for a 5K any day. If I am going to be exercising, I want to be breathing hard, sweating, and probably wondering if I am going to make it. But stretching myself, finding balance, and taking a moment of stillness? That sounds like hard work.
But, I fell in love with a dance class—and a community—and yoga came with it. And so,several days a week, I found myself closing my eyes, breathing deeply and finally giving in. “Take a breath. Let it travel through your body. And, just when you think your lungs are full—sip a little more air. And then a little more. Hold the breath, and in this space: Set an intention for your practice.” Yeah, right. Can't we just start dancing?!
Let your mind go. Breathe deeply.
Somewhere along the way, though, I noticed that my experience in those opening moments shifted. I stopped rolling my eyes, and started closing them. I stopped smirking, and started breathing. And I began to set an intention—sometimes an inward reflection. At first, my intentions were solely fitness-based: Lose weight. Get in shape. Tone my arms.
But as those physical changes actually did start to happen, I noticed that my intentions grew more expansive, if still totally embodied: Love my shape. Celebrate my body’s abilities.
Then, my intentions grew wider, more integral to the life that I was living. Sometimes a specific goal. Sometimes a one word plan: Hope. Contentment. Focus. And my dance became more than just a way to work out.
Sadly, I had to leave my studio behind. But I often hear my teachers' words when I embark on a new project, a new endeavor. And they came right back to me as I began Daf Yomi a few weeks ago. While I am not sure I will be able to finish it, I have—for the time—committed to studying a daf (two pages) of Talmud every day…for 7.5 years. And I thought to myself—I better set an intention. And so I did. One of discpline, of learning lishmah (for its own sake, and of rejoining a conversation I think desperately needs our liberal, female voices.
The Talmud begins with a discussion of the recitation of the Shema. After a thorough discussion of when to recite Shema, the rabbis begin to ask how we recite Shema. The case that they bring is of someone who is engaged in Torah study of some sort of another—even studying the verses that contain the words of the Shema—when the time arrives for the recitation of Shema. What, they ask, is he to do? The rabbis teach that if he directs his heart towards the recitation of the Shema, he (or she, I suppose!) has fulfilled the obligation to recite the Shema.
The word for “direction” here is kavannah. While it is often used to describe the parts of the prayer service that happen organically, in contrast to the fixed liturgical pieces, it more correctly means “intention.” It means your internal compass is focused, directed, on what you are doing—or what you hope to do.
And the Gemara continues with one short, weighty statement: Mitzvot require kavannah. To engage in the significant acts of Jewish life, it is not enough to do so woodenly, robotically, without deep thought and commitment.
As Elul begins, we are asked to take spiritual stock, to reflect on the year that was—to consider who we have been and what we have done. And this “inventory” we are asked to take should inform who want to become and the steps we’ll take to get there.
So, I invite you to sit. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Breathe in a little more. And set an intention for your practice.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Get Ready to Make It New: #BlogElul

If you're following me on #Twitter, you already know (read: might be super annoyed by the fact) that I am, at least for now, doing the Daf Yomi. If I manage to maintain it, it means that every day for the next 7.5 years, I will learn a daf (that's two sides of a page) of Talmud a day. That's a LOT of Aramaic, a LOT of picayune rabbinic detail, and--I hope--a lot of deep questioning and introspection.

One of my plans to maintain it is to get ahead when I can, so my Elul teaching for today, on return, actually comes from the daf that is assigned to Wednesday, August 22nd. The rabbis are engaged in a discussion of prayer--seems fitting for a tractate named for Blessings. One of the rabbis raises the question about a man (of course a man--more on that later, I am sure!) who has already prayed--meaning he has fulfilled his obligation to recite the Shema and the Amidah, which are central prayers of the Jewish prayer service. What happens, they ask, if he then walks into a synagogue and finds the community at the point of the service where they are reciting these prayers? Does he join in, or just sit there?

And this is one of those moment where I fall in love with Talmud all over again. Because in the midst of this somewhat specific, detail oriented question, they respond with a concept that just blows my mind. He can join in, they say, as long as he finds something new to add to his prayers. 

The Hebrew month of #Elul began today. And one of its primary motifs is that of return. Returning to ourselves and returning to God. But, like the man who walks into synagogue hearing the words he has just spoken, I don't think we are being asked simply to return, to go back to what and who was. I don't think we CAN do that.

One of my teachers once described Jewish time as a spiral, not a circle. Yes, we come back to the same texts, the same holidays, the same questions--but we never come back to exactly the same place. We grow and we learn, we climb and sometimes we fall. 

And so, I want to suggest for this #Elul that perhaps the rabbis words can inspire us too. We can join in, as long as we can find something new--something to learn, something to pray, something to become. 

Marge Piercy, one of my favorite poets, writes the following:

Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue.

If you can't bless it, get ready to make it new.

Now is the time for return. Get ready to make it new.

For your listening pleasure.......


Earlier this week, a congregant was asking me about the High Holy Days. Do you just dread them, she asked? And the answer is--I don't. I don't think any of us rabbis/cantors/educators do--if we did, we're in the wrong business. But it is more than that. The minute I step onto the bimah for Erev Rosh HaShanah, I am overcome with a sense of excitement, a sense of possibility. I walk through those days charged with the feeling that a new day has truly dawned.

Had she asked a different question, I might have had a different answer. Had she asked about Elul....well....this morning dawned with, if not a sense of dread, certainly a sense of anxiety. There is (obviously) the professional anxiety--will I get the sermons written, will they be good? And within that, I think, are deeper questions: What do I have to teach this year? How can I bring challenge and comfort at the same time? What is MY Torah this year?? What is yours?

And even deeper, of course, there is my personal anxiety about these High Holy Days. Will I have enough time for my own spiritual preparation? Will I use my professional responsibilities as a way of dodging tougher personal commitments? What is the work of teshuvah--repentance--in which I have to engage this year?

Rabbi Phyllis Sommer started something called #BlogElul. The idea--to take a different topic for each day of #Elul and blog, Tweet, or FB about it. I know I cannot commit to each and every day, but I am posting the topics here, in hope that they will inspire you---and me---to begin the introspection this month requests of us. 

Chodesh Tov. Welcome to this new month. First #BlogElul to follow....

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Can I Prop a #Gemara on my Spin Bike: Musings on the Talmud from one Reform Jew

In case you don't follow all the Jewish news, last night was the Siyum HaShas--an event that can only happen every 7.5 years as a cycle of daily Talmud study is completed. It is a HUGE accomplishment, and as I contemplate trying to begin the Daf Yomi cycle, I cannot even begin to imagine how to fit that sort of sustained, daily study into an already packed calendar.* 

In an article about the Siyum HaShas, one of the leaders of the Reform Movement is quoted as saying:
“Text study is very important to us, but we focus on the Ur-text, on Torah in particular. Talmud, the Oral Law, is not our core text,” he said. It “certainly doesn’t rise anywhere to the level of a daily study encouragement for us.”

He is, overall, correct--I think. We as Reform Jews have long eschewed Mishnah and Talmud in favor of Torah and Tanach. We have seen these books as solely the province of halachic Jews; Talmud belongs to "them." I don't want it to be that way; more importantly, I don't think it should be that way. I know, like many things in a dynamic movement, this is shifting, and I am happy about that. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi might roll over in his grave, but I think that the Talmud in particular is a liberal text! 

A newly ordained colleague of mine is mid-cycle in Daf Yomi, and he was the one who first posted the article I quoted above. He wrote: A complete program of study can't ignore the single most important text outside of the Bible! Needless to say, I agree. And more, as I wrote to him:  I think it SHOULD be more of a priority.  It is, by definition, an interpretive document, lending itself to creativity, debate, and--well--interpretation, which are three things I think the Reform Movement holds dear and does quite well. If  we are asking the question of how we live Torah in our everyday lives, I think that the Talmud is probably the best living example of how to ask that question.....I'll get off my soapbox now.

But, clearly, I did not get off my soapbox. I just came over here.

We rabbis are asked to write personal statements as part of our job application process (now I am spilling all the secrets). In part of mine, I wrote about text, and what Talmud in particular has become for me:

I walked out of my very first Talmud class. I could not understand the language or the logic; moreover, I could not understand what it could say to me even if I could comprehend it.  Later, I fell in love with the study of Talmud. I learned, deeply and with great reverence, the language of our ancient texts. I threw myself into their debates; I talked with them as I talked with friends.  I learned their language, to be sure, but I also think I helped them speak in ours. And therefore, I am able to introduce these friends to others, to allow them to enrich the lives of congregants as they have enriched my life. I passionately believe that the rabbis of the Talmud, of the Mishnah, and of the Midrash can speak to Reform Jews in the 21st century; I just as passionately believe that we need to speak back. The rabbis themselves say that when two people sit to study words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests with them. Each Shabbat morning, I invite people into the conversation of Torah, including their expertise and their thoughts and their struggles into the ongoing chain of Jewish learning. So, when bnei mitzvah students sit in my office, thinking (or complaining!) about writing their divrei Torah, I always remind them that Torah is a living, breathing document. It is not a book that sits on the shelf. We change Torah and Torah changes us—and in it and with it, I believe we can find the Divine Presence. 

Full disclosure--and for any of you Congregation Rodeph Sholom learners who might be reading--I have not taught a sustained Talmud course. And I don't think I will be able to this year. But, I will continue to learn and teach Talmud from my lens, and my eyes. 

And if you'll learn with me, I really do think we might encounter the Divine. And if not the Kadosh Baruch Hu, some old Jews with senses of humor.

Ken yehi ratzon.

*Think I could prop a Gemara on my spin bike??