Shabbat Va’Era: Reveal Yourself

In last week’s parashat hashavua we witnessed a rapid transition in which the people of Israel went from a good life in Exile to a persecuted, miserable slavery. At the end of the  parashah Moshe, after his first attempt to organize the people of Israel, is discouraged.

וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל י-ה, וַיֹּאמַר:  אד-נָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה–לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי.

Moshe went back to HaShem and said: ‘HaShem, why are you making this situation worse? why would You send me, if this is the outcome?

וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ, הֵרַע, לָעָם הַזֶּה; וְהַצֵּל לֹא-הִצַּלְתָּ, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ.

Ever since I spoke to Pharaoh in Your name, he has dealt harshly with this people, and You! You have not saved Your people.’ (Ex. 5.22-23)

After the marching and rallying of last week came the flurry of destructive executive orders. Why is it getting even worse? we might cry out as Moshe did.

Generations of commentary have sought to understand our own efforts for justice by studying this passage from our Torah. At the beginning of our parashah for this week, G*d replies:

  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי י-ה.

G*d spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘I am HaShem;

ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּקל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי י-ה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as a mighty G*d, but by My name YHWH I did not reveal to them. (Ex. 6.2-3)

The great Torah interpreter Rashi noticed the order of Names of G*d: First Elohim, a generic word for G*d also used to refer to other gods, is a word associated in Jewish tradition with G*d’s Judgment, where the Four Letter Name which we refer to by using the word HaShem (“the Name”) is associated with G*d’s attribute of mercy.  A later commentator, the Piacezsner Rebbe from the Warsaw Ghetto (who wrote during the Holocaust), carries this insight forward to create a teaching that goes like this:

Harsh judgment is not always the way to bring people together; to get people to listen to you, and maybe even hear you, takes gentleness, kindness, and mercy.

We must open multiple fronts, my friends and companions in Resistance. Especially in #JewishResistance, we will be most effective and most true to ourselves and our tradition when we follow Isaiah in “crying out with full voice, making our voices a shofar” (58.1) and sometimes we must quietly speak our truth and listen openly to that of others. This tradition in Judaism is called makhloket l’shem shamayim; it challenges us to act not only with justice, but also with mercy, as a moment may demand.

We are taught that we are made in the Image of G*d and we are to be as G*d. Here that means to follow G*d’s example and reveal not only the Judgement side of ourselves, but also the side that shows Mercy, Compassion, and Love. It is as the signs of the marchers say: it is not hate against hate that wins; Love conquers Hate. 

It took the Israelites a long time to leave Egypt. For us as well, the road ahead is long. We won’t be marching every part of it – sometimes we’ll be resting, coming together for reinforcement, meditating on what is happening both without and within, and finding our balance with each other’s help. 

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Do Not Oppress the Stranger

A group of ragged refugees from Egypt millennia ago created the ancient Sacred Scriptures of Judaism. Shared by Islam and adopted by Christianity, they proclaim no less than thirty-six times

“You shall not oppress the stranger.

You know the feelings of the stranger,

for you have been strangers yourself.”

The Sacred scriptures of the United States are engraved on the Statue that stands in New York Harbor, a statue whose full name is Liberty Enlightening the World.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The Jewish community rejects the efforts of the Trump Administration to trick us into blaming our problems on helpless, stateless human beings who seek refuge with us. We condemn the banning of immigrants to our shores as immoral, as counterproductive, as against the will of G*d.

We have seen this before. We know that evil exists in the world, and we will not aid or abet it by supporting measures that target an entire community, the many innocent with any who may be, but have been discovered, nor been tried, nor been proven guilty.

This is not who we Americans are when we are great.

This is the way of evil, and we will resist it.

We will resist it in the streets, in courts of law, and at the ballot box.

We will reflect the light of Liberty as it has shined for us, and so that beacon of hope will continue to shine through us.

And we will continue to pray for our current government, that those in power may lead these United States always in the spirit of true greatness:

G*d, indwelling breath and spirit of all human beings and all the earth, may this country of ours be blessed. May our leaders be blessed with wisdom and understanding, that they might establish peace and liberty for all its inhabitants. May we all be blessed equally with compassion and strength, that we might build together a society in which all will be safe, all will be well, and all will be free to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

Amen.

Offered at press conference in Portland Oregon January 27 2017

 

Shabbat Shemot: A New King Arose Who Did Not Know Joseph

Now there arose a new king who did not know Joseph (Ex.1.8)These words from the opening of the Book Shemot, Exodus, rise up, an uncanny echo reverberating through history, mocking those of us who think that the Torah is tamed and not so up to date.

These are the words that greet us on this Shabbat; this is our parashat hashavua. Like our ancestors, we know not what awaits us. Like our ancestors, we know that lessons can be learned through our history, and that justice is worked out day by day.

On Friday we will be in shul, or at work, at a rally, at more than one of these, or wherever else we must be. Wherever we are, let us be together – with each other as we can be in touch, and with all those who seek justice and show up for justice, here and everywhere. 

Tomorrow we will introduce a new prayer minhag, a Tahanun to be recited each day which is not a holy day.

On Shabbat we will rest, and connect with each other and the sources of our strength. Seek out your Jewish community whenever you can on this Shabbat; we are stronger when we face the uncertainty of the unknown together.

And on Sunday we will continue our path together, taking one step at a time, as carefully and as compassionately as we can.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Asara b’Tevet: Countdown to January 20 2017

Yesterday the countdown began, although you may not have noticed. Yesterday was Asara b’Tevet, a minor fast day in Judaism which marks the day on which the Babylonian Empire laid siege to the ancient walls of Jerusalem. It was created as a fast day because that day was the beginning of the end for the ancient Kingdom of Israel; the Babylonians destroyed the city and exiled our ancestors in 586 BCE.

“Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. And in the ninth year of his reign, on the 10th day of the 10th month Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the 11th year of King Zedekiah” (II Kings 25.1-2). According to the Prophet Ezekiel, we are commanded to mark the day forever after: “O mortal, record this date, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem”  (Ezekiel 24.2).

Why remember an ancient harbinger of destruction? Recently our people has rationalized that we no longer need to remember this day – after all, Jerusalem is rebuilt.

But today the day glows with renewed relevance: the ancient history of yesterday, with its Jewish undertone of impending tragedy, offers itself to us in our own day. Yesterday marked the beginning of the onslaught of the Cabinet choices of the new administration – as good a place as any to stand as our own Asara b’Tevet. We do not know how this story will play out yet, because we will be a part of it, through our Resistance. But our Resistance as Jews is supported by a firm grounding in awareness of our history, and what it has taught us.

Our Countdown has 13 days, and this is Day 2. This is how Jews can proceed, and if you are in Portland Oregon I invite you to join me:

Day 4 Wednesday January 11 7pm –  Pub Talk: Judaism and Resistance at the Lucky Lab on Hawthorne. Learn with Rabbi Ariel Stone and Rabbi Tzvi Fischer of the Portland Kollel; get grounded in your people’s cultural wisdom. As Bend The Arc is saying: we’ve seen this before. Have a beer with us, meet some new companions in the Resistance.

Day 6 Friday January 13 6.30pm – Kley Kodesh; kirtan-style Erev Shabbat at Shir Tikvah Join JD Kleinke and explore the spiritual strength to resist found in ancient Jewish prayer in chant, meditation and song.

Day 8 Sunday January 15 3-5pm – Oregon Sanctuary Assembly, First Christian Church, 1314 SW Park Avenue. Join Shir Tikvah leadership in attending this gathering to learn strategies for fulfilling our tradition’s mitzvah “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” (Lev. 19.16). please rsvp.

Day 9 Monday January 16, Martin Luther King day 5-7pm – Unite by JewsPDX, hosted by Shir Tikvah. Join Jews from across Portland to learn from our people’s long tradition of political Resistance, listen to each other, and organize. Light fare and child care included, PLEASE do the mitzvah of registering your RSVP on this Eventbrite page to ensure an accurate headcount and check out the Facebook event, like and share. 

Day 13 Friday January 20, Yom Ta’anit – Jewish tradition demands that we take time to center ourselves in our strength, find our support in each other, and then go forward to do what must be done:

A Day of Fasting and Prayer 10.30am-3.30pm Shir Tikvah’s doors are open to you to join in prayer, to sit in meditation, to be inspired, to take a breath and renew your dedication to Resistance.

A Day of Rallying and Marches 4pm Inauguration Day Protest at Pioneer Courthouse Square (Shabbat begins at 4.43 and we will be there to invite Jews among those who rally to bless the light with us)

(this week) Shabbat VaYigash: One Step

Parashat VaYigash brings us to the denouement of the saga of Joseph and his brothers. Favoritism and jealousy have led to immature acts of aggression, lives have been torn apart and now it seems that all is lost. Joseph’s brothers stand before him all unaware that this is their brother; Joseph, who does recognize them, taunts and threatens. According to the Midrash, he is testing to see if they have grown beyond the vindictive criminals who nearly murdered him in their youth. He creates a scene of terror that causes the brothers to fear for their lives.
In these moments of parashat VaYigash we witness the courage that it takes to speak the truth. Joseph has thrown Shimon into the dungeon; now he threatens to keep Benjamin with him, a move that the brothers fear will kill their father. Judah sees a bad situation getting worse and has a choice: he can sit back and watch disaster overtake his brothers, but hope that he himself will be unscathed – or he can step forward into naked vulnerability and stop the process.
Judah steps forward. What does it take, to take that step? What does it mean?
This is a step away from waiting for someone else to do what you yourself believe must be done.
It is a step toward honesty – and also, probably, vilification from those who have not taken the step.
It is said that when the Israelites stood at the edge of the Sea waiting for it to split so that they could cross over safely, G*d told Moshe to urge them to enter the water, that only then would it part. Everyone stood together in fear, and then, according to the midrash, Nakhshon ben Amminadav leaped into the water.
Do you know what everyone else did then? They threw rocks at him. They were angry that he had gone first. Later that anger may have changed to admiration, or just jealousy of his courage. But there is something in us that attacks those who take a stand different from the group.
If you’ve been feeling stressed because you agree with Secretary Kerry’s speech on Israel this week, you know the feeling. Those of us who agree (some polls indicate that up to 60% of American Jews do) are liable to be attacked forcefully and with great emotion by those who will tell us that we are betraying Israel and making common cause with those who would destroy it. If you’re like me, you insist that you can be pro-Israel and, as a lover of Israel, fear that the Occupation will destroy Israel. Because our prophets taught us that a society which does not help the vulnerable will not survive; because the Torah teaches that if you pass your enemy’s ox or ass fallen under its load you must help to raise it; because evil is evil no matter who causes it – terrorists or good guys, and all the venal people who do that which they know is wrong who exist in the wide swath of in between.
It can sometimes happen that one person is right and everyone else is wrong. The hard part is that you can’t know that. You can only act in accordance with the ethics that strengthen the ground on which you stand. You can check them with your community companions, but sometimes you have to take a step all alone, without knowing what will happen – only that you feel vulnerable.
In the days to come we will stand together when we can – may we protect each other when we take that one step forward.

 

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other,

(next week) Shabbat VaYehi: What’s the Last Word?

Our parashat hashavua this week concludes not only the Book Bereshit but also the saga of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and that entire generation. One of the most fascinating passages in the parashah describes Jacob, on his deathbed, and his last words to his sons. Although we refer to the scene as Jacob’s deathbed blessing, the words he offers are surprisingly prosaic and not so much about blessing as a recognition of the character of each son.

What our commentators find most interesting, though, is the unanswered promise implied by the first verse of the story:

 וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-בָּנָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם, בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים.

Jacob called to his sons, and said: ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days. (Gen.49.1)

After this statement, one might expect Jacob to begin to foretell future events, perhaps to speak with his children of the slavery and eventual redemption of their descendants, or of future glories and struggles even further down the path.

But he doesn’t. A midrash explains that he was about to, and the Shekhinah appeared at the foot of his bed, rendering him speechless – and when he recovered, he had forgotten what he was about to tell. Telling the future, even if you can see it, is, we see, not part of Jewish tradition, but leads to a sort of unfair “gaming of the system.” Life is meant to be lived by devotion to down-to-earth, every day Jewish ethical behavior. One need not worry about tomorrow’s events if one is living a life of thoughtful mitzvot and compassionate acts as much as one can, day by day.

There is another way to understand the story: there need not be a gap between verse one and the continuation of the parashah at all. In a very real way, Jacob was telling his children what would befall them, not by telling them which horse might win at the races next Tuesday, but by describing to each one of them the character s/he had developed. In other words, the future is not something that happens to you while you wait passively for it to occur; the future is that which we experience as a result of our choices, and the impact they exert on the complex web of phenomena happening all around us, at all times.

Reuven broke basic rules of the home early; Simon and Levi were the type who maim animals for fun. The future which each one of them could expect would be indelibly marked by the acts of their past. Judah struggled and grew morally: as he himself awakened to a higher self, even learning to say “I was wrong, she was right” we might hope for leadership from him marked by the ability to respect others equally to the respect he expected for himself.

What will your last words be? It’s not such a strange thing to consider, since we are creating the self who will speak them every day of our lives, with each act and word. Everyone has a last day marked by the choices we’ve made – both as individuals and as communities, even as nations. No one, and nothing, lasts forever, and there is a greater ethical good in focusing on living each day with integrity, rather than letting ourselves sink to venal levels in fear that our days will not be long enough.

Fear is not a guiding light. It summons none of us to our best selves. Fear of the other is not a foreign or a domestic policy; whether the fear-mongering be from the U.S. president-elect or the Israeli prime minister, we as American Jews know this: either Jewish ethics are applicable in all circumstances, or they aren’t really ethics. The things we believe in will either strengthen us through this darkness, or they aren’t really beliefs. 

May our last words reflect a life of principle and of integrity. May we live our days, as best we can, as we want to be remembered – each and every one of them. And may we live them in a supportive community that allows us to deepen those beliefs until they will hold us through the worst of times.

hazak, hazak v’nithazek, let us be strong, be strong and strengthen each other