Standing Up Is Dangerous, Yet We Must Stand Up

Just before Shabbat entered the world last Friday evening, a tragedy occurred in Portland. Two men who tried to intervene in the harassment of two teenage Muslim women were murdered. By Shabbat afternoon, over a thousand people had come together to mourn, to comfort each other and to encourage each other and ourselves to continue to rise up, as the two men did, against acts of hate in our public spaces. By Sunday morning, news of the murders had been publicized internationally. By Sunday evening, nearly half a million dollars had been raised for the families of the two victims as well as a third person who survived the attack (and needs help with medical bills, to our shame as a country).
Perhaps you remember that in January and February Shir Tikvah organized an opportunity for us to learn about non-violent intervention in cases of public acts of hate. Perhaps it is just now that you feel it hitting home, as I do: standing up for another person in an attempt to intervene to keep that person safe is not necessarily, and certainly not guaranteed to be, a safe act.
What are we, then, to do, with this frightening new reality?There are those who have already called for armed police on every MAX train. No doubt there are even those who are calling for each of us to carry a concealed weapon. But reactions which stoke our fear and mistrust of each other will only drive us farther away from each other, and not toward peaceful co-existence.
Traditional Jewish ethics teaches us to see G*d as our role model, and to reach out to others as described in our daily prayers: to lift up the fallen, to heal the sick, to free the captive, to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust (the Gevurot prayer of the Amidah).
Yet we are also taught in Jewish tradition to care for all life, including our own; piku’akh nefesh, saving life, comes before all other mitzvot. Sacrificing oneself is not encouraged, unless there is no other way. Yet from our own experiences, the Jewish people has also learned, as the Israeli historian Yehudah Bauer puts it, the three mitzvot of the Holocaust:
You shall not be a perpetrator; you shall not be a victim; you shall not be a bystander.
Non-violent intervention is a complex act; if you remember, our teachers told us that it may escalate, and we ourselves may find ourselves in danger. When hate is abroad, none of us are safe: not the victim, not the intervener, and not the bystander, who will one day be engulfed in the hate s/he has done nothing to try to stop.
This is all a great shock for those of us whose parents worked hard to shield us from the murderous hatred our people knew in Europe; for some of us, we have never felt even a little bit unsafe. We must support each other as we face this new reality, and give each other the time that we have to begin to try to accustom ourselves to a new, harsh reality.
Violence is always wrong. Compassion is always right. The difficulty is in our daily struggle to identify what’s truly happening and to find the right path forward through it. Let the mitzvot of our prayers live for you not only as a challenge to your acts but as a guiding light of sanity when you are trying to figure out what to do. No matter what, it is right to try to lift up the fallen, to heal the sick, to free the captive, to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. 
 
And luckily, you can join the communal prayers anytime you want to meditate on just how this framework of mitzvot can hold you up, when you realize you also must stand up.

 

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other
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Shabbat BaMidbar: Fire, Water and Wilderness

The name of our parashah this week is the same as the name of the Book we are now beginning, once again, to study: BaMidbar, “in the wilderness,” the Book called Numbers in English. So far in our journey from Egypt toward that which is Promised, our Torah has recounted for us the escape itself, the arrival at Mt Sinai, the building of the Mikdash, the sacred space, and the details of how we are to approach the Presence of G*d, in that space and, for that matter, everywhere else. From the arrival at Sinai, all the action has taken place at the foot of that mountain. Now, “on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out of Egypt” (Num.1.1), we are preparing to leave Sinai, and to strike off across the untracked wilderness.

This parashah is always read just before Shavuot, the Festival of the giving of the Torah which we will celebrate next Tuesday evening through Wednesday (and Thursday, which is the 2nd day of the Diaspora). Our ancestors, contemplating the context for our receiving the Torah, note that it was given “amidst three things: fire, water, and wilderness” (Midrash Rabbah).

Fire, as we learn from the account of Sinai enveloped in smoke and fire, G*d appearing in a burning bush, and the pillar of fire that will lead us onward, symbolized in the fire that is to be kept ever-burning on the altar and in our hearts.

Water, as we know from the story of our people entering the Sea of Reeds in an act of faith, and crossing through it in a way as miraculous as if on dry land.

Wilderness, for the thirty-nine years our ancestors will make their way, each day in the faith that they are slowly approaching that which has been Promised, that safe resting place which will be Home.

The Lubliner Rebbe noted that the first two of these elements are momentary occurrences: our people came through fire and water, and it was done. But the wilderness journey was a sustained, on-going struggle in uncertainty.

The Festival of Shavuot is often described by our tradition as the wedding between G*d and the People of Israel, and the Torah is, therefore, our ketubah. And we can see the similarity: the fire and water of initial passion and emotion, which in time settles into the daily wandering in the wilderness which is a true, living relationship. Whether with another individual or with one’s kehillah, one’s intentional Jewish community, an initial attraction and excitement will inevitably settle into the real struggle to deal with all the uncertainties of living, evolving, and growing – as an individual and with others.

To truly exist in the wilderness takes dedication, strength and courage: the courage to stay engaged when one’s certainties are upset, the strength to hold still and listen to that which is new, and the dedication to stick with the meaning of the journey on the bad days, the days of mokhin d’katnut, as the mystics put it, when we are small-minded and not kind, neither to others nor to ourselves.

On this Shabbat, we are invited to dive deep into remembering the state of wandering – not in the easy way of the bumper sticker, wandering among institutions that do not ask for our personal loyalty, but in the difficult way of being that leads to that which is Promised:

The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety; a place that demands being present with all of yourself.

In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens, and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.

Now you might say that the promise of such spirited awareness could only keep one with the greatest determination in the wilderness but for a moment or so. That such a way of being would be like breathing pure oxygen. We would live our lives in but a few hours and die of old age. As our ancestors complained, It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness (Exodus 14.12). 

And indeed, that is your choice. (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Honey From the Rock)  

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other for the journey, in Israel, in the U.S., and in our own intentional communities –  that journey which continues at our feet right here, right now.

Shabbat BeHar/BeHukkotai: Taking Refuge in the PaRDeS of Learning

Yesterday I was on a conference call with a national social justice organization, during which we were told that “usually, we expect to operate with a six-month window. Lately we have revised that to six days.”  Such is the sense of frantic, non-stop chaos in the political sphere of our nation’s existence.
Thank G*d that we Jews have the ability to balance our necessary social and political awareness with a much longer, calmer perspective: that of the halakhah, the structured path, and the aggadah, the informing narrative, of our people’s long history. No matter what is happening in the moment, you can gain a moment of calm with which to view a wider horizon by going through a simple mental exercise: what’s the parashat hashavua (the parashah, or section, of the week), and how does it offer resonance in this moment?
The parashah this shavua is a double: BeHar, “on the mountain”, and BeHukkotai, “with My laws.”  Applying our four-fold PaRDeS tool for exploring Torah we find much that can help us put the latest news of today and every day into a manageable context. Consider it a refuge from immediacy. Pardes is an ancient Persian loan word meaning “garden”; it is also the root of the word “paradise.”
1. P is for peshat; on the “simple” or surface level of meaning we have this teaching: BeHar, on the mountain, refers to Mount Sinai. It’s a surprising reminder that here, as we finish up the Book VaYikra (Leviticus) we haven’t yet left the mountain where we stood all together to enter into the Covenant. It took us only fifty days to arrive there, but we have been there ever since. And when we do leave, soon enough, to begin the wanderings described in the Book BaMidbar (Numbers), we will take with us a souvenir in the most significant sense of the word. That eternal reminder, or azkarah (memorial) of the Sinai experience, is referred to in the name of the next parashah, BeHukkotai, “with My laws.” On the first day that our people ventured forth from Sinai, and on every single day since, we have had with us the gift of the guide we got there.
2. D is for drash (interpretation), and yes, the letters go out of the word’s order: on this deeper level of investigating meaning we dive beneath the surface meaning of a verse. These two parshiyot are full of the laws that are meant to create an ethical Jewish society, among them this one: “when you buy and sell property, you shall not defraud your neighbor” (Lev.25.14). Rabbi Simkha Bunem of Pyshiskha (1765-1827) “drashed”, i.e. taught as a midrash (interpretation) on this law: “Legally, it is only forbidden to defraud one’s neighbor. But a good Jew must go beyond the letter of the law, and take care not to delude oneself, either.” Understood this way, we are commanded not to cheat ourselves in terms of value, mentally, physically or spiritually. You know what you’re worth, as an Image of G*d in the world, and what your neighbor is worth, too.
3. R is for remez (hint). In parashat BeHar we are commanded to count 49 years and to declare every 50th year to be a Yovel (“Jubilee”) year, a holy time: “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants….you shall not sow, neither shall you reap.” (Lev.25.10-11) Hints might come from noticing context and juxtaposition, and just before this command is that of sounding the Shofar on the Day of Atonement in order to declare the Yovel year. Might we understand from this that the year cannot be considered holy, a year when there will be enough to eat without sowing and reaping, if Atonement is not achieved first? Could we understand this, further, as a warning that unless we care for the land and its inhabitants appropriately and ethically, it will not yield its abundance to us? The Torah itself leads us to this conclusion in parashat BeHukkotai, in which we are warned that if we abuse the land and its inhabitants, sooner or later the land will rest, but we will not be there to see it.
4. S is for sode (secret). We are aware of this level of understanding, but we cannot achieve it. There is that which will remain beyond us, and there is a mystery at the heart of life we will never understand. Rabbi Hayim of Tzantz taught that our awareness of our inability to understand life makes our lives a constant search through a dark, trackless forest. All we can do, the Rebbe said, is to hold hands, and look for the way together.
On this Shabbat, give thanks for sun and longer days in which to enjoy life as we can, understanding what we might of the chaotic days in which we live, grateful for learning that leads to deeper interpretations and community that supports us in our common seeking. This, too, is Torah, and we need to learn it.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

May Day: Short Sighted Police Leadership

I submitted this letter to the Oregonian but I can’t even find the responses they published to the “hot button” question regarding whether the police were too harsh on May Day at the rally and march downtown. I don’t think they published my response – so here it is.

The actions of the Portland Police demonstrate short-sighted thinking among those who direct them

I was there, downtown, on May Day 2017 in Portland, and I remain dismayed by the outcome for all those who had gathered to participate in this celebration of workers’ solidarity. It was truly amazing and heartening to see the different groups there.

I was disappointed by the small minority of people who were clearly bent on destruction from the moment the march began. Men – some young, some old enough to know better – with megaphones hurled abuse at the police who stood alongside the route. Some were content with words, but others were eager to do damage.

And I was horrified by the actions of the police. Rather than working to separate out the minority violent element from the march, there was indiscriminate escalation, including the throwing of tear gas – by definition a weapon that cannot discriminate between the thug and the peaceful marcher.

Those who direct police actions must be told: neither tear gas nor beatings is ever effective in creating a peaceful society. Only justice can do that.

Our police must be trained to distinguish between the destructive element and the peaceful marchers, citizens they are sworn to protect and to serve. The City of Portland must change the tone of police interaction with peaceful marchers. They did not deserve the disrespect of having their permit summarily revoked and their march ended, unjustly identified with a small minority which acted destructively.

Rabbi Ariel Stone

Shabbat Emor: Why Bother?

“You shall not cause My holy Name to be hollowed out and meaningless.”  (Lev.22.32) This mitzvah from the parashat hashavua may seem obscure, especially when it is translated in the traditional way: “profaned.” But it’s actually a very relevant concept. A Jew causes the Name to be “profaned,” i.e. meaningless, when that Jew who is known to self identify as a Jew – calls oneself a Jew, explains one’s actions as Jewish – acts in a way clearly contrary to Jewish teaching. This is really no different from any other kind of hypocrisy, except that in this case it reflects upon that which one professes to respect, and clearly does not.
Profanation of the Name, then, is religious hypocrisy. It is to act in such a way that one brings contempt not only upon oneself but upon that which one professes to believe in. It turns respect into derision, and, worse, reflects upon everyone else involved. Worst of all, it leads to disillusionment and cynicism.
For many who still want to believe in the holiness of the mitzvot, the Jewish people and its path, and its G*d, there’s a sense that one must withdraw in order to guard that sense, that this life-path is special and meaningful despite those who hollow its meaning out by their chosen actions.
Similarly, for those of us who want to continue to believe in democracy, in the social contract, and in basic human decency, some days, and some people, are harder than others.
This week in Portland we have seen another tragic death at the hands of police. Terrell Johnson was killed while fleeing police after an encounter at a MAX station. For those who have worked so hard in so many ways to raise awareness, protest police shootings, and get things to change around here, this is terribly discouraging news.
Jews, as a minority in so many places, have long known that the events of the day, piled up far enough, can destroy your certainty that there is something worth fighting for. Why bother, after all? Why care, why try to change the world for the better? why not just go shopping? In short, why not join those who have decided that it’s all hollow, and there’s nothing that is holy?
We can ask the question more broadly: what if there is no holiness, what if there is no G*d? Our ancestors knew this question as well:
“You are my witnesses, says G*d” … Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai said, If you are My witnesses, then I am G*d. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, G*d. (Pesikta deRav Kahana)
There may be no G*d that we can fully comprehend on a bad day; indeed, for all intents and purposes there may be no G*d at all, and no meaning, and no purpose. But if that is so, we still need to construct meaning for our lives by which to grow and act coherently. Even as every living being depends upon certainties of context and structure in order to exist at all, we need order and coherence by which to think and act.
On a day when all you are working for seems to be worthless, you begin to understand faith. Faith is not that we will be rescued from ourselves, not to Jews: faith is knowing in your heart that there is something worth getting out of bed for. On that day when you aren’t sure you can generate that certainty by yourself, give thanks that you belong to a community, an ancient community that asserts meaning far beyond any individual’s ability to carry such a load. It is full of suggestions for you, of support and ideas and relevance, as long as you engage with it not in cynical despair but with respect and hope – that is, in holiness.
On erev Shabbat we are bidden to give tzedakah in honor of Shabbat. In our day, at this time, I invite you to demonstrate your certainty that there is still something holy in your life, in our Portland community, and in our nation by doing #JewishResistance tzedakah, and giving a few minutes of your time to an act that will honor Shabbat in the same way as tzedakah, by giving of your heart and mind as you do your resources. Thus you will fulfill the most important mitzvah of the Shema: with all your heart, with all your mind, with all you have” (Deut. 6.5)

Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: Choices Don’t Free You, They Distract You

On any given day, we are confronted with choices, and have to make a decision regarding how best to choose; that is, how best to live. In some ways we imagine that our lives are so much better than our ancestors, who, we presume, made their choices from a much narrower range of options, and therefore must not have been as happy as we are. More choices must mean more freedom, and that must mean more happiness – or so we might think.
What a contrast the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel offer us:
… who, then, is the free person?  The creative person who is not carried away by the flow of necessity, not bound by the chains of process and not enslaved by circumstance. We are free in precious moments … liberty is not the constant state of human beings. We all have the potential for freedom but in fact we act freely only in rare moments of creativity.
Jewish tradition offers a framework of meaning for one’s everyday acts that one might argue “free us up” for the moments of creative freedom to which we might find ourselves called. Some days, it simply pares down to manageable size the collection of decisions one needs to make. The obligations that replace some of those choices are called mitzvot. You might say that the mitzvot take care of the daily choices that otherwise distract us from what’s truly meaningful and needs our careful attention. Take kashrut for one: what you are having for lunch, for example, is so much less important than choosing what social justice organization to support.
On this Shabbat the parashat hashavua records what scholars call the “Holiness Code,” a list of specific acts to which we are obligated by our belonging to the Covenant of the Jewish people with G*d. We might consider them the grounding in the quotidian which enables us to save our energy for the surprising and the unusual.
Consider these, taken from this Shabbat’s text:
ט  וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת-קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם,
לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר; וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ, לֹא תְלַקֵּט.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not wholly reap the corner of your field, nor gather the gleanings of your harvest.

when you gather in that which is yours, leave some, and give up your belief in ownership of it.

י  וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל, וּפֶרֶט כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט:
לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם, אֲנִי יְ-ה אֱלֹ-כֶם.
10 Do not glean your vineyard, nor gather the fallen fruit of the vineyard;
leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am HaShem your G*d.

don’t spend everything you have on yourself; put some of what you’ve gained into a tzedakah fund that cares for the poor.

יא  לֹא, תִּגְנֹבוּ; וְלֹא-תְכַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא-תְשַׁקְּרוּ, אִישׁ בַּעֲמִיתוֹ. 11 Do not steal; do not deal falsely nor lie one to another.

don’t pretend the facts are otherwise in order to suit your desires or goals.

יב  וְלֹא-תִשָּׁבְעוּ בִשְׁמִי, לַשָּׁקֶר:  וְחִלַּלְתָּ אֶת-שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲנִי יְ-ה.

………….

12 Do not swear by G*d’s name falsely and make it contemptible: I am HaShem.

Don’t swear “by all that is holy” and lie, because when it is found out,
no one will respect anything that you hold holy.

…….

יז  לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ; הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ,
וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא.
17 Do not hate another in your heart; rebuke your neighbour,
do not bear sin because of your neighbor.

Expressing anger without acting against someone who does wrong is itself wrong; speak out and seek to confront that person, lest you be part of the problem.

יח  לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ,
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ:  אֲנִי, יְ-ה.
18 Do not take vengeance, nor hold any grudge against your people.
Love your neighbour as yourself: I am HaShem.

And yet, do not write off that person who does wrong, and remember
forever that wrong, and hold it against that person – treat everyone else
as you would wish to be treated, if you truly believe that there’s a G*d you follow (however you might define the Source of your certainties and your life), and a people to which you belong.

Some things are already set down for you as a Jew (or someone who loves and travels with one). Let them hold you up in moments of crisis. These are part of your bedrock, allowing us to stand firm upon it. Thus we have the strength to create that which needs our careful, conscious, ethical choices.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other