Friday, January 20, 2017

BE A MIDWIFE: Reflections on #Shabbat after the Inauguration

It must have been dark; these things seem to happen in the middle of the night.

It must have been frightening—the darkness and the chaos combined with a rush of adrenaline coursing through their bodies.

It must have been been exhilarating—not the sheer physicality of the task, but the emotional risk, and payoff, of the choice they made.

The screams of the woman in labor. The coaching. The yelling. The silence. The intake of breath. The cry of an infant. The silence. The agony. The fear. The unknown. But the power. The power. Each time, each night, each birth—standing on the precipice. Quietly resisting. Quietly moving forward. Quietly creating a future.

In the midst of it all: an angry Moses, a dead Egyptian, a burning bush, a Divine revelation—the Book of Exodus opens with a quiet revolution, a model of resistance, a testament to the power of individuals, of women, life, birth, and hope.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shifra and Puah,  “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. (Exodus 1:15-17)

In the darkness, they created light. In the fear, they found moral courage. Under the rule of unjust leadership, they found spiritual resistance. To fear God, to revere God and hear God’s call over that of our flawed human leadership, is to find a sense of history and future, to understand our place in eternity, to play a moral and spiritual long game.

It is 5am on an April morning in 1992, just across town. Along with my mother and other members of our synagogue community, I climb aboard a bus headed to Washington, DC for a major rally—the March for Women’s Lives. On that day, marching proudly as a member of a Reform synagogue, I learned what it meant to put values into action. On that day, I learned that Judaism had a language for that; I learned that Judaism had a language that spoke deeply to the social issues of our time. On that day, I knew I wanted to become fluent in that language, the language of the prophets who teach us that God’s work, holy work, is in feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, in clothing the naked and freeing the captive. 

If you’ve heard me speak of my path to the rabbinate, of why I became a rabbi—you’ve heard me speak about text and tradition, about Israel and Jewish time, perhaps about the Divine and prayer. But none of those relationships—nothing that I learned or felt or sought in Judaism, would have happened if not for that dark April morning. The fear, the unknown—but also the power.

I know that for many of us in this room tonight, today was a dark day. Today was a day of fear and sadness and anger and trepidation. Kol hatchalot kashot, our text teaches us—all beginnings are difficult, but today feels more than that. It feels scary. It feels heavy. It feels unsure and unjust. And, I think even if you sit across the political divide from me---you will acknowledge that there has been a breach, that we as a people are fractured and broken as never before in my memory. 

Today feels like a dark day—but, in the words of Valerie Kaur, a Sikh teacher and activist-- "What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb – but the darkness of the womb?" What if today, this moment, is a moment of birth—fraught with danger, but also with endless possibility.

Like many of you, I sought out this place on the Shabbat after Election Day. Newborn daughter on my chest, I stood in this Sanctuary—with an almost High Holy Day crowd—seeking community, seeking consolation—but above all, seeking inspiration and hope. And I found it—and continue to find it—in this place and with all of you. So too, tonight, I look to you—to us—not only for comfort, but for inspiration. For the courage of moral and spiritual resistance. Because it is what our tradition demands, and it is what we can do.

There are hundreds of texts which I could share tonight—texts that implore us to protect, to love, the stranger and the orphan and the widow. Texts that remind us to leave the corners of our fields for those who do not have enough. Texts that speak of justice and of righteousness. Texts that form the core of our Torah and prophetic tradition. Texts that you have read or heard a thousand times. Instead, I want to offer you this teaching. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of what would become the State of Israel, spoke of our responsibility, as humans and as committed Jews. He wrote:

The righteous need not accept evil, but rather increase righteousness in the world. They need not accept rejection, but rather increase faith in the world. They need not accept ignorance, but rather increase wisdom in the world. (Arpelei Tohar)

This is our task, our mandate, the foundation of our spiritual resistance and moral courage; this is the work of the midwives. We need not accept hatred, but rather increase love in the world. We need not accept xenophobia, but rather increase our welcome. We need not accept misogyny, but rather increase feminism in the world. We need not accept homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, but rather increase justice and equality in the world. We need not accept dishonesty, but rather increase truth in the world. We need not accept violence, but rather increase compassion in the world. Increase trust. Increase hope.

Increase love. Increase love. Increase love. 

We will do it in small ways—in everyday acts of kindness and compassion; a smile on the subway, a kind word or gesture when someone is struggling. We will do it privately—through our donations and our rituals at home. We will do it publicly—standing proudly with and for our black, brown, white, Muslim, Christian, atheist gay, straight, transgender, immigrant neighbors; we’ll do it in Washington, DC and Albany, speaking truth to power—making calls and writing emails and visiting our elected officials--holding up our values, our hopes, and our vision. And we will do it Jewishly—guided, inspired, and commanded by the words of our Torah, a teaching that is deeply political….though non-partisan. And, we will do it together—in community and in power.

Some of us started this morning, packing backpacks for hungry children in New York City. Some of us are starting tonight, opening our spiritual home for men in need of a safe place to spend a night. Some of us will start tomorrow; in the streets of Manhattan and Washington, DC. We might start the next day, or the next—but know this: We need not—we MUST not—simply accept what is. We must—we are commanded—to work for what can still be.

Last Shabbat, Rabbi Levine quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s final sermon to his congregation—titled The Drum Major Instinct. In prescient, powerful, and poignant words, he told his congregation what he hoped would be said about him at his funeral:
And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. 
I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. 
I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. 
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. 
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. 
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. 
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. 
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.  Say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness. 
Amen v’amen—would that I could ever give a sermon that good. Yes, to all of those visions and hopes. Yes.

But tonight, I want us to imagine something else. Dr. King himself, in that very speech, first touches on the dangers of the drum major model--of its temptations and weaknesses. I want to imagine a model of leadership, of courage, and of resistance that is not that of Moses. One that is not that of Dr. King. In the spirit of this Shabbat, of all Shabbatot, I want to offer a model that is, I say proudly, a little more female. Let us be midwives--not one single person leading a crowd, but a collective power that urges us to resist. To breathe. To push. To birth.
From the Mississippi Friends of Midwives website

I want us to be midwives; we can be leaders who coach and comfort, who guide and grapple, who usher new hope and potential into the world. And so, tonight, on this Shabbat, on this Inauguration day:  Let us strive to be midwives. Midwives of justice. Midwives of compassion. Midwives of righteousness. Midwives of kindness. Midwives of love. Each time, each night, each birth—standing on the precipice. Resisting. Moving forward. Creating a new future. Loudly. Proudly. Together. Increasing love. Increasing love.


Sunday, January 1, 2017


One of my goals--I won't say resolutions--for 2017 is to write more. Write to friends--really write to them, and also to write here. And so, I'll begin today, on this first day of a new calendar year.


As a proud American Jew, I have always celebrated in both calendars. I do not struggle with secular American holidays, and I've even been known to dress up for Halloween or send a Valentine. So, New Year's should be a no brainer. Even our rabbis of the Mishnah could imagine that the year contain a multitude of firsts. In one of my favorite texts to teach, the sages say:

There are four New Years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and for festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for Sabbatical years, for Jubilee years, for planting, and for vegetables. On the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to the School of Shammai. The School of Hillel say on the fifteenth thereof. (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1)

Setting aside the intricacies of this calendar, and which date corresponds to which holiday, I've always been drawn to this text. It seems that, even almost 2000 years ago, we understood the need for new beginnings, for blank pages and broad visions. We understood that different seasons speak to different priorities, and that there is a power in naming them.  One of the first sermons I ever gave, as a rabbinic student, was around the first of Elul. I taught this text, noting the 4 New Years in my life: Rosh HaShanah, the first day of school, New Year's Day--and opening day of the New York Giants. 

But here's where I am a curmudgeon. I despise New Year's Eve. I always have, and I assume I always will--I don't like forced fun, the expectation that it be "the best night ever." I don't like the way it brings out long-buried, and I'd hoped forgotten, social anxieties. But most of all, I don't like it because it seems shallow. 

I know that we all (and I'll include myself) mean well with our Facebook wishes for a happy New Year, our heartfelt hopes for a year of love and kindness. But after we've put down the champagne and cleaned up the streamers, what does this New Year ask of us? Even my resolutions, at which I fail each year, tend to be amorphous at best, self-absorbed at worst. Lose weight. Get in shape. Be a better wife, mother, friend.

In Jewish tradition, the New Year is actually not the clean slate. Following a month of spiritual preparation, it kicks off 10 days of intense work, days known as Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, the 10 days of repentance--not amorphous, not self-absorbed, not theoretical. There is work to be done, relationships to repair, and--here's the kicker--we're the only ones who can do it.

Earlier today, I came across this thought, Tweeted by Samantha Ettus. She wrote:

Replace the resolutions with specific & achievable goals for each slice of your life - health, relationship, career, friends, parenting etc.

Yes. I thought. Yes. And more. 

Resolutions, big or small, take work. Just like Rosh HaShanah, New Year's Day should inspire us to buckle down, to identify the very real--but very workable--changes we want to make. Maybe it is okay if these are self-absorbed, or at least self-focused; maybe if we change ourselves, we'll see changes in the world around us. But they need to be real, they need to be concrete, and they need to take work.

Kol hatchalot kashot. There is a rabbinic dictum, repeated throughout our ancient texts, that states: All beginnings are difficult. So take your resolutions, your hopes, and dreams--and do the work. Hard work. All beginnings are difficult, but without them--we cannot know the sweetness. Happy 2017.