Now Is The Time: A Reflection on The Inauguration 2017

“Kol HaOlam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Me’od: All the world is a very narrow narrow-bridgebridge – the most important thing is not to be afraid.” These are the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

Jewish leaders, throughout our civilization, have always found inspiration and insight in our textual tradition. And it is Rabbi Nachman’s words that seem appropriately fitting for me, and for us, in this moment of American [and more specifically, American Jewish] life.

The polarization and divisiveness that has plagued our political and social discourse has impacted ALL OF US in some way. Additionally, the intersection of Israel’s increasing alienation across the global community with the volatility of the U.S. presidential election generated a perfect storm of discord throughout the American Jewish landscape, even pitting loved ones against each other.

The narrow bridge, in which Rabbi Nachman speaks of, can challenge us. Yet, it can also serve as a motivator in which we cannot, and should not fear. exodus

So, on this inauguration day, as we usher in a new chapter of political leadership, I look to Torah as my inspiration and motivation. And perhaps, in some Divine way, we begin reading the chapters of the Exodus narrative this week: the story of an enslaved people, exiting the bonds of slavery, and journeying into the wilderness; embracing, and often, challenging the unknowns/unchartered waters.

Through the retelling of this journey, we should be encouraged by the words of Moses to Joshua toward the end of the journey: Chazak v’ematz – to be strong and of good courage; yet toward the beginning we are first reminded of “a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power over Egypt.” (Ex. 1:8)

The new king’s ascension to the top office in the land did not in any way indicate a change in the very nature of that land. In fact, Egypt was still the same Egypt. The Egyptians did not need to let the fears and insecurities of their new leader influence them to change their thinking, priorities, and ideals, such that the worst of the human condition was put on display. Several times in the book of Genesis, Egypt had in fact welcomed the tired, poor, huddled masses of the children of Israel so that they could flee famine. THIS was the ideal Egypt. Yet, in one generation, in one verse of Torah, Egypt became a nation that would enslave the Israelites for 400 years, due to the unwarranted fears of its new leader.

In today’s inaugural speech, President Trump noted that a nation exists to serve its citizens and that we share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.

I want to agree with these sentiments as well, but feel challenged today with our nation’s current reality. Recent weeks have brought difficult conversations and more to our family. And most recently, these past days, in our local school community as well. Swastikas were painted and carved into trees on two of our local school campuses; another at the seminary where I (and your other two rabbis) studied to be a rabbi.

My children may not yet be thinking actively about these incidents, or what’s in store for them and their futures – but I have no doubt, they have and continue to absorb the energy of the pains of our fractured world, and the questionable safety they now face as Jews in America.

On this Shabbat, as we reflect on today’s transfer of power, in concert with the ascension of a new pharaoh in this week’s portion, we must ask ourselves: how do we protect against allowing fear, our own and that of others to dominate our decision making? How do we fight anti-Semitism against us while simultaneously resisting our own inclinations to stereotype others? I believe, as Americans, and especially as a Jewish people, we must balance communal inclusivity with ideological integrity, balancing politics with the fearless hunger and timeless values of our tradition.

As an antidote to the fractures and narrow bridges we see and face, Nicole and I have noted at times around our dinner table, that our tradition commands: “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21).

Indeed, each of us must do our part to protect the most vulnerable among us, and advance the progress in policies we wish to champion.

So tomorrow morning, our children will watch their mother and safta (along with countless others from our community) head down to march in the Women’s March on Washington,not in protest, but in solidarity – with those who identify as women, along with allies of all races, ethnicities, and religions –united in support of women’s equality in our coutry. I am so very proud of them for standing up for themselves and what they believe, and for refusing to shy away from the difficult task of moving forward in this new and challenging time.

On this inauguration day, I want my children to know enough about themselves, who they are and what THEY stand for; and unlike many of the Israelites at the beginning of their journey –feel free to be curious and not fearful of the differences or challenges that might lie ahead. They can, and should be part of the civil discourse, and in fact, our tradition mandates such.

As we move into this Shabbat, on the dawn of new political leadership, confronting the unknowns by walking the narrow bridge, what I have come to learn is that it was never about the new King who knew not Joseph. Rather, it was the fear that seemingly paralyzed the Egyptian Community. Today for me is about opportunity; it is about our personal and communal potential; it is about challenging ourselves to walk a path, no matter how narrow, that models the best within us, in order to champion our greatest love and potential as individuals who belong to something even greater.potential

Two of my colleagues, Rabbis Mona Alfi and Nancy Wechsler, created the following prayer, which beautifully expresses a prayer for a unifying vision based on the Declaration of Independence.

 

“Mi she’berach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu – May the One who blessed our founding fathers and mothers bless us as well, with comfort and inspiration as we begin this new year. We believe that some truths are self-evident, all people, in our many glorious manifestations, are created equal. We are all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The burden upon our shoulders to remember the wisdom and courage of those who came before us, who dared to dream of a better future. Yet, to remember is not enough. In each generation we are called to take action, to preserve and protect the fragile dreams upon which our nation was founded.

In seasons of turbulence,

we pray for a steady hand to guide our ship.

As storms of anger rage, we pray for sanctuary.

As fists clench, we pray for open hearts.

When sharp words slash like swords,

we pray to transform them into plowshares

to sow seeds of understanding and respect.

Now is not the time to avert our gaze

from what troubles our hearts.

Now is the time to build friendships.

Now is the time to fiercely protect the earth that sustains us.

Now is the time to honor with our words, and with our actions,

the spark of holiness that resides in every human being.

And by so doing, we honor our country, our children and our

Creator.”

Amen.

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Israel’s (And Our) Sacred Obligation

306085_10151369426699928_1255815395_nA recent post from Rabbi Nevarez – sermon that he gave on 7.18.14:

Parshat Matot/Israel’s Sacred Obligation

Almost one week ago, I returned from serving on faculty at URJ Eisner Camp in the Berkshires, where many of our young congregants, including my oldest, spend much of their time immersed in sports, arts, and strong friendships, all in a Jewish setting.

They call it the “Eisner Bubble”, where the happenings of the world around them typically remain at a distance.  Yet, as I wrote to the congregation two weeks ago, the situation in Israel permeated the Bubble, as many family members and friends of both American and Israeli staff are currently there.  Our hearts and prayers were with them each and every day.

And since my exit from the bubble,  I, like many of you, have been bombarded by article after email after article, and subsequently reminded me and had me fully appreciate those times in which being insulated and surrounded by community can be a beautiful, healthy, and healing part of life’s journey.

Specifically, upon exiting the camp community, amid the ongoing troubles between Israel and the Hamas, I have taken a particular interest into the many Americans and media commentators that are drawing disturbing lines of parallelism between the two societies, asserting a false moral equivalency to the actions of each.

The realities: four boys are dead and Israel is again on the brink of war: Three Jewish boys killed to provoke Israel into action that her enemies hoped would bring down the wrath and ridicule of the world; riots in Jerusalem, in France, in Los Angeles ensued. Hamas rockets fired into Israel, and Israel responds by flying sorties over Gaza and targeting Hamas operatives and rocket launchers.

Cease-fires, agreed to by Israel have been subsequently denied by Hamas. And just yesterday, Israel widens it Gaza offensive by sending in ground troops. The situation is a ticking time bomb.

And so it may seem ironic, or perhaps timely, that we read Parshat Matot this week, which teaches us much about raw and brutal revenge and retaliation in the guise of holiness. It is one thing to recognize our passion for revenge, but quite another to claim it is God’s bidding.

That is precisely what we find in Parshat Matot: We read: The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:1-2)

The very last public “service” of Moses, one who has models devotion and humility, will be to launch a bloody campaign against a notorious enemy.

Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Lord’s vengeance on Midian. You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel.” (Numbers 31:3-5)

Torah records that the Israelites slew men, women, and children. It is a shocking story. Were we to actually believe it to be factual history, it would be all the more horrifying. Yet, in the same sacred scroll, we have a very clear mandate as a Jewish people: You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.

So how are we to understand these contradicting mandates of contradiction? All this stirs in my mind as I painfully contemplate the past few weeks, in which Israel has been engaged in military action in Gaza.  And as I write this the United Nations has reported that over 200 Palestinians have been killed in Operation Protective Edge in the past week, many of them children, and many more have been injured. More than one voice has proclaimed that Operation Protective Edge is an act of revenge. And it appears as though the American and western media revel in this verbiage as well. Yet, I believe we shouldn’t be so quick to label it as such because the evidence does not match up:

  • Israel has gone to historically unprecedented lengths to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. Hamas targets have been warned by texts, cell calls, and leaflets dropped from the air to vacate houses targeted for destruction. Israel’s goal is to cripple the Hamas infrastructure, not harm the people of Gaza.
  • Hamas, which has won elections with the support of the population of Gaza, is a terrorist group that remains bent on the destruction of Israel and its citizens. Israel uses anti-missles to protect its citizens. Hamas uses its citizens to protect its rockets. Just yesterday, we learned that 20 rockets were found housed at a UN school in Gaza. Without provocation, the Hamas governing authority flings rockets over the border, all over Israel, without regard to civilian lives or public safety. In fact, the terrorists frequently target civilians. Their intent: to terrorize and inflict as much pain as possible. Hamas operatives have embedded themselves deep within the civilian population, increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties because this plays well in the media and the arena of world opinion. They have long employed the tactic of using civilians as “human shields.”
  • Israel worked out a cease-fire arrangement with the aid of Egypt. Israel has unilaterally initiated a cease-fire. Hamas has summarily rejected them, counting its bombardment of rockets toward Israel.
  • Iron Dome, Israel’s air defense system that intercepts and destroys short-range rockets and artillery shells whose trajectories would bring them to populated areas, is working well. Thank goodness.

I mention these pieces of the current situation to illustrate that Israel’s actions in Gaza, however much we might wish they hadn’t happened and Israel had not considered them necessary, are not acts of revenge. Rather, Marcus Aurelius says it best in his book, Meditations, when he writes: “The best revenge is not to be like your enemy”.

The killing of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali was an intentional act of provocation. Israel’s sorties over Gaza are to protect its population from the rain of rockets showering its nation, OUR nation.

I believe that never was there a more pointed contrast that, on the one hand, those in the world who dedicate their lives to engage and work toward peace, and on the other, others who become radicalized into violence in the name of God. And I believe that is the difference between a culture of life and one of death. This has become the battle of our time, not only in Israel but in Iraq, in Nigeria, and elsewhere throughout our world. For many of us, there is both a dynamic tension and troubling exhaustion from a conflict which seems to have no end; a world which seems to hang in the balance – not to mention ongoing questions about what it is that we might do ourselves to eradicate the perceived unsolvable hatreds over land, history and God.

The persistence of hatred and war after all these years combined with a broader extremism has the potential to confuse, to blind, to leave us grasping for the allure of dangerous totalities. Texts, FB messages, and selfies from bomb shelters with family and friends all over Israel. And the war of opinions and images, of news biases from Gaza to Tel Aviv, of what seems to be a hopeless search for objectivity in a land where rockets are falling, terror is looming, consensus is elusive. This war is taking place in the context of a region torn apart, not by the sheer weight of good people everywhere merely wanting to survive, but by bad people doing bad things and drawing the good into the line of fire; and good people being forced to do bad things in order to prevent more bad things from happening.

So what can WE do? Our tradition teaches that it is incumbent upon us to mourn the loss of life, on either side, with the promise to live life itself to its fullest expression; we must confront the deficiencies of life with a generosity of spirit. And for me, and all of us here, we must remember that to be a Jew in the world is a weighted privilege, which still, tragically, can come at the price of life itself.

Every day, we add another layer to the ongoing tensions. And while we can be sure that there will be more news updates and more emotions felt, I think back for a moment at the 3 young men we lost a few weeks ago. Some would say, the genesis of this most recent uprising. I will neither forget the young victims nor what they lived for: the right that everyone on earth should enjoy, to live a life of faith without fear.

I believe this is our charge, as klei kodesh, holy vessels, to be the bearers of light. Today, let us use our “light”, as we live outside our own “bubbles”, to remain as fortified as ever, resilient with hope, and faithful in our belief that the Jewish people need and deserve, like any other nation, a state of our own. We have the capacity, the potential, and the gifts to be those vessels, in which the lessons we learn can manifest into sacred teachings, and tempers the evils that exist in our world. May we all heed to call to teach these timeless lessons. AMEN.

Mahjong Thursdays

Mahjong Thursdays

This spring the NY Times reported:

WOODY ALLEN joked in ”Annie Hall” that after he was thrown out of New York University for cheating on a metaphysics final, his mother, a ”high-strung woman, locked herself in the bathroom and took an overdose of mah-jongg tiles.”

This illustrates not just the lengths to which a distraught Jewish mother might go to inflict guilt, but how much a staple mah-jongg was (and is) in Jewish-American life — up there with flanken, seltzer and schmaltz (at least in my family).

Mah-jongg is a game of chance and skill similar to gin rummy, in which each of four players is dealt either 13 pictographic tiles of different suits. The players then take turns drawing and discarding tiles, with a goal of making four or five combinations of tiles, or melds, and one pair, or head. It was a favorite at Catskill resorts and played incessantly by Eastern European immigrant Jewish women in the 1930s. The National Mah Jongg League was formed in 1937 by a group of German-Jewish women, inviting players to convene and standardize the rules.

I, myself play in a weekly game with 6 friends.  We rotate in an out of the game while simultaneously sharing news of our lives. Are you intrigued? Starting in the fall, Temple Shaaray Tefila will host Mahjong Thursdays from 11:00-2:00. If you want to learn, we will have beginner tables, if you know how to play and are perpetually looking for a fourth, come by and there will always be a game waiting for you.

Rabbi Stacy