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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Biblical Change Agents

The following was a piece I wrote for the weekly URJ publication: 10 Minutes of Torah, published on July 6, 2015:

Biblical Change AgentsDAVAR ACHER BY JASON NEVAREZ

I join Rabbi Kushner in celebrating these nashot chayil, “women of valor.” They paved the way for future generations not only in gaining access to their inheritance, but also in bringing about amendments to the current legislation; amendments that provided greater access to relatives sharing in their clan’s inheritance. In our modern language, we might refer to them as “change agents.”

In her book, Midrashic Women, Judith Baskin describes the daughters of Zelophehad well. According to Baskin, they are “canny and competent women who trusted that divine mercy would transcend the mutable norms of a human society in which women were subordinate human beings . . . allowing them to shape their own destinies.”1

In addition to achieving a tremendous feat impacting land inheritance for women, today, they push us to rethink fate. They ask us to consider what is right, just, and relevant when faced with traditional approaches that may no longer serve a greater good. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah inspire us to do the footwork and push the boundaries, even if it brings us into uncomfortable places. They model the potential for us: to enter into the holy centers where we fight for what we believe is just.

From these heroic biblical change agents, we learn some important lessons:

  • Bringing about change takes a shared vision, even though there may be periods of time when one has to stand alone.
  • Resolving conflict includes a demonstration of evidence and facts coupled with a sensible attitude and approach to advance a positive and worthy outcome.
  • Emotion has great impact. The five daughters place their facts into meaningful context and deliver them with conviction and passion.

In reflection, take a moment to ask yourself the question: What cause(s) have I stood up for lately? Change can be challenging to enact, even when the need for such is increasingly urgent. But our tradition challenges us, each and every day, to not wait upon others for the changes we hope to see. As we change our ways, so too, the ways of the world. Be the change!

1. Judith Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature (Hanover-London: Brandeis University Press, 2002)

From Intolerance to Simcha: Israel Sabbatical 2015 Post 1

It has been approximately one week since our arrival in Israel for my summer sabbatical, and over 3 weeks since my mother’s passing. I have entered this sacred land with mixed emotions…trying to find a balance between this mourning period and releasing from the tensions that have part of my life these past months. And yes, while the Jerusalem air, warm days and cool nights offers a sense of calm and shlemut (wholeness), truth told, it is a work in progress, and for today, I will label it: “dynamic tension”.   
I wanted to share an interesting encounter I had this past Shabbat while spending this time with our ultra orthodox cousins, who live in the city of Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh (for those who might not be familiar), is a sleeper community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These most recent years have found this community filled with tensions between secular and religious, religious and ultra religious, and the list goes on. Beit Shemesh, for me, has served as an incubator for such connections and subsequent tensions. 

  
For our first shabbat in Israel, we shared this experience with our cousins at their home in Beit Shemesh – a fully shomer shabbat, shome mitzvot experience – just what the doctor ordered! My cousin, an orthodox rabbi by smicha (ordination), but a computer programmer by day, knows my love for Carlebach music and prayer – so we headed to the Carlebach minyan. Shuls (synagogues) are a plenty in this community, and while the energy of this type of minyan was not his cup of tea, he was gracious in his offer to come with. 
The evneing started with such energy and beauty….singing and joyous momentum (on the men’s side) as we sang through the prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat – no less than 4 times of men being pulled up to dance around the service leader. Truly joyous! Yet, given the happenings of the past few weeks and tensions between these Jewish religious sects, something miraculous was occuring before my eyes: hasidim, religious zionists, and modern Orthodox were davening (praying) together – singing, clapping, and dancing. 

The height of my observation (as an outsider to this community) was the interaction between some of the Chasidim and immediate former MK (member of Knesset) Dov Lipman. Dov spent the past few years as a member of the Yesh Atid party, heading a ferocious campaign to enforce cumpulsory military service for the ultra orthodox community (they are not currently obligated). One might think it would be a challenging place for him to enter. Rather, what I witnessed were pats on the back, smiles, and positive and supportive conversation for Dov’s presence in this sacred moment. I witnessed, first hand, the joy of welcoming Shabbat trumping the feelings and challenges that have been clouding this community for quite some time.

For me, the gift of Shabbat is to leave behind the everday challenges we are obligated to/responsible for. Rather, barriers are removed, and we are ignited with the 3 flames: 2 are those that help us to make that sacred distinction between everyday and holy; the third ignites the best within us so that we may actualize our greatest human potential: v’ahavta l’recha komocha – love your neighbor as yourself. 
 

Getting ready to put a note in the wall at the Kotel

  
 
Though I am just at the beginning of this incredible journey, so may lessons have already been learned. I look forward to sharing more about my incredible learning time at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem….stay tuned! 

A Call To Remember and Celebrate – Israel Adventure: Day 3

I write to you from Jerusalem during Israel’s most sensitive hours – the time in which we are called upon to reflect and remember on this Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), the 23,000 fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror, and Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day. During this varying 48-hour experience it has been impossible to avoid the mood that has set in throughout the country, and to not be enveloped in the national discussion of what those thousands of individuals gave their lives for, and what we wish for Israel’s future on her birthday.

Since last night, as I turned on the TV in my hotel room, the faces and names of those who fell were broadcast on Israeli television to beautiful Israeli songs – songs which express a desire for peace. As today’s sirens wailed for a full two minutes, our group was in the midst of our visit to Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. I can’t think of a more appropriate and profound place to be. In addition to the cars, buses and trucks that came to a halt on the streets and highways, those inside stood in silence and at attention. At Yad Vashem, the media displays quieted, and the hundreds of Israelis and tourists (Jews and non-Jews), fell into a silent memorial to pay testimony and witness to those who gave of their lives. In that very moment, I was aware that disagreements or arguments were silenced, and we were brought together to pray that our lives will be fitting to those who have passed.

The sirens, much like the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah, call for us to be alert to messages we were receiving at that very moment – and to move through this experience with a quiet intention that would illuminate our inner flames to NEVER FORGET. 

Upon our closing reflection, we stopped to eat a quick lunch and continue our day of memorial at the impressive Ma’aleh Film School. There, we were invited to screeen two important short films that illuminated some of the contemporary issues and struggles in today’s Israeli society.

We headed from there to share some prayerful moments at the Kotel (Western Wall), to allow a few moments to reflect on the day’s powerful takeaways. 

After a brief stop at Mea Sha’arim (one of Jerusalem’s oldest and religiously observant communities), we headed back to the hotel in order to shift our mental and physcial gears as we soon approached the beginning of Israeli Independence Day. Throughout last night and today, we mourned. And tonight, we celebrated Israel’s 67th birthday. Just 24 hours prior, the entire country knelt down in mourning only to then rise up out of the depths in celebration of what we cannot take for granted: an Israel of phenomenal growth and achievement; an Israel with the dream of being an independent sovereign Jewish state is indeed a reality. Tonight we walked the bustling and crowded streets of the city center, where young and old are sing and dance, eat and rejoice. It was awe-inspiring scene, one that will be etched in our memories. 

Through the rollercoaster of the past two days, we have come to realize that here stands a powerful, magnificent Jewish state, and together we stand united remembering our heroes — sons and daughters who died in the long battle protecting our homeland. And as we do in our prayerful moments, we must remind ourselves of the words we ask of God:

עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן

May God who makes peace in high places, make peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, amen.

   

             

A Day Filled With Hills, Humor, and Honor- What A Day! Israel Adventure: Day 2

We began our day with a delicious breakfast, in order to fuel up for our inaugural Jerusalem bike tour. We didn’t know what to expect, but were excited to see this city of gold in a new and thrilling way! 

Jerusalem is now home to miles and miles of new bike paths that traverse the city from east to west and north to south. From the city center to Talpiyot, Neve Tzedek and beyond, we experienced the heights and depths of the Judean Hills, which gave us greater insight into the smaller cityscapes along the way. When was the last time you could say you were able to ride your bike through the Supreme Court and city hall? We learned that these spheres of justice are accessible to all- and they certainly were!

After our exciting morning, we headed to mahane yehuda (the Shuk/marketplace) for a festive lunch, and to enjoy the smells and tastes of Israel. And let’s not forget our dessert stop at Marzpan (world famous hot off of the oven rugeleach). We felt deserving given our intense morning ride!

We left for the old city, where we started our afternoon in the ancient City of David- an archaeological site recently uncovered adjacent to the city walls. Our adventure certainly wasn’t done- we headed a few hundred meters below ground and trekked (in darkness) through thigh-high water from the springs that served as the primary water supply for the Davidic Empire over 2000 years ago. 

Upon experiencing this 500 yard water system, we headed up the ancient sewers of the city, which gave new-found meaning to the Willy Wonka line: “Taste the wallpaper- the snozzberries taste like snozzberries”.  Needless to say, shoes were changed and cleaned later in the day!

The sewer concluded right under the old city walls and under Robinson’s Arch. We visited the southern wall excavation, had some exchanges with soldiers, and got close, but not up to the Kotel, as it is closed this afternoon and evening in preparation for a national Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day) service. 

Dinner was another win win, and now we wait, in great anticipation, with the cold Jerusalem air to our backs, at city hall for a special Memorial Day commemoration. 

We were all in awe as the sirens wailed at 8pm, and everyone stood in silence and attention, to honor those who gave their lives for the State of Israel. It is an honor to be present for this most important and sacred commemoration. Until tomorrow…. 

       

You Want Me To Do What? Israel Adventure: Day One

One might think that a 10 hour flight and all that comes along with preparing physically and mentally for an Israel experience would be enough for a first day….think again! Our group hit the ground running, surprised to learn that they would begin their experience as herders in training – “the amazing graze”. Our first stop was at Neot Kedumim, overlooking the amazingly lush Judean Hills. There we ate lunch and tasted the first fruits of the rainy season , learning about the connection of our tradition to the land.

It was there that we started coming together as a group by learning the art of goat and sheep herding. Through a “friendly” competition of herding scenarios, it became evident the true winners were the men of the group (just don’t tell the ladies)!

We then ascended, making our way up to Jerusalem, learning (visually) about the challenges that continue to persist as we traversed both sides of the green line and the West Bank. 

We made our way to hotel, ending of very busy day with a delicious dinner and walk in the city center.

After a good night’s sleep, we will be getting up early for a morning bike ride around the entire city (a first for all of us). More to come. Laila tov from Jerualem!