Rosh HaShanah 5778 – the Shofar’s call: Get Woke

 Shanah Tovah!

 

Tomorrow we will gather to experience one of the most important spiritual moments of this day that we call Rosh HaShanah, the New Year. That experience is the sounding of the Shofar. Although it may not seem to us to be the ultimate purpose of our sacred gathering, the sounding of the ram’s horn (or antelope, or kudu) is actually the oldest ritual associated with this day.

 

The Torah calls today shabbaton zikhron Teru’ah, mikra kodesh, which we translate as:

  1. a Shabbat-day, meaning a day of rest no matter what day of the week it is
  2. a day to remember the sound of teru’ah, one of the three Shofar sounds we will hear tomorrow
  3. a day for a holy gathering

 

 וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying:
 דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר  בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן–זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ. Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, the first day of the month shall be a holy day of rest for you, a remembrance of the teru’ah, a day for a sacred gathering.[1]

 

Interestingly, today is not the first day of the Jewish calendar year. When we call it Rosh HaShanah, the Head of the Year, we are asserting the significance of this day. But we get the emphasis wrong: we don’t sound the Shofar because it’s the beginning of our spiritual year: it is the beginning of the year because we s0und the Shofar on this day.

 

Our tradition[2] declares this the day on which the world itself is born, and born again, and born anew. That’s not because we can calculate the physics back to the big bang, but rather, it’s an aspirational statement. An ancient Talmudic story promises us that this day can be the beginning of the world for each of us, and for all of us – if we learn to listen to what we must be able to hear in order to bring about such a blessed renewal – and, apparently, also manage to remember what we have heard. Zikron teru’ah, the remembrance of the sound of the Shofar.[3]

 

But what are we to remember? Our Tanakh attests to the importance of the Shofar at peak moments such as this in our history. Its different sounds all demand attention. The Shofar is a sound of alarm; it declares a moment of great intensity. The sound of the Shofar accompanied the great moment when we became aware of the presence of G*d at Sinai[4] – and according to one old story about that day, the Shofar served, literally, as a wake-up call, since our ancestors had fallen asleep in the meantime.[5]

 

The great Jewish scholar Maimonides, or, as we call him, Rambam, teaches that meaning of the shofar is this: WAKE UP. Or, as it is said on the streets of the United States in these days, it’s time to “get woke.”

 

This term, which is associated with the Movement for Black Lives, is defined as “a cultural push to challenge problematic norms, systemic injustices, and the overall status quo through complete awareness….the phrase itself is an encouragement for people to wake up, and question dogmatic social norms.”[6]

 

Rambam would have agreed. He writes that the shofar calls to each of us saying: “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep! Consider your deeds…do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows, and waste their years seeking after that which is empty.” (MT Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4)

 

The Shofar calls to us to be sensitive to what is true and what is not. It calls us to wake up to see how we can be socially manipulated, and how our acts, thus influenced, participate in oppression of ourselves and others. The Shofar calls us to wake up to our own potential to act to heal the world.

In short, the Shofar is calling upon us to get woke, to act woke, and to stay woke.

 

  1. Shevarim: Get Woke

 

It is written: * The Presence of G*d was manifest upon Mt Sinai, and the voice of the shofar was heard, sounding louder and louder through the thunder and smoke.[7] *

 

Consider the voice of the shofar, this strange and harsh sound. By Jewish law we are not allowed to mellow the sound by affixing a mouthpiece to the simple animal horn; there is to be no artificial barrier between breath and lips and horn and sound.

 

It’s not easy to make a clear, clean sound come from this simple instrument. It would be so much easier with a mouthpiece, like that from a bugle. But when this horn sounds, it is a sound like no other – it is a sound like the sound of the truth, when you hear it.

 

Sometimes the truth we need to hear is terrible to hear. Ancient midrash describes the shevarim notes of the Shofar, three “broken” notes, as yelalah: a Hebrew word describing the sound of unanswered anguish. This is a cry that echoes in a silent, cold, uncaring void. It is a wail of hopelessness.

 

The midrash offers a painful interpretation of what our people remembers when we hear the shevarim call of the Shofar. This interpretive midrash relates to the Torah reading, the one we find so terribly difficult to understand: the Akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. The Torah relates that Abraham hears G*d commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac, and at the last moment, his hand is stayed by a messenger of G*d, an angel. A ram is sacrificed instead. The story is terrible enough, but of course there’s more – we need to know where was Sarah? As it is, the next story the Torah relates is that of her death. The midrash fills in, using the figure of the satan, the personification of the evil among us:

When Abraham came from Mt Moriah, the satan was furious that he had failed to realize the sacrifice of Isaac. What did he do? he went off and found Sarah. “Ah, Sarah, have you not heard what’s been happening in the world?” She replied, “no.” He said, “your old husband has taken the boy and sacrificed him as a burnt offering, while the boy cried and wailed in his helplessness.” Immediately, she began to cry and wail. She …wailed three times, corresponding to the broken notes of the Shofar. Then she died, and Abraham came home and found her dead.[8]

 

In this midrash, the satan creates fake news, causing Sarah to imagine this horrible scene, and as a direct result, she dies, in agony. Sarah imagines Isaac’s death cries, cries of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces. The shevarim is the sound of the living creature that cannot be saved from death. Sarah, also held by an anguish that she cannot survive, echoes his cries.[9]

 

According to the midrash, it is these cries that we re-enact in the ritual of the Shofar. The text concludes that “the Shofar blasts on the New Year transform Sarah’s death into atonement, because the broken Shofar tone is a sound of groaning and wailing.”[10]

 

This atonement comes through hearing, and through remembering. The Shofar calls in the voice of the murdered. The shevarim reminds us that we have heard the hopeless wail of the tragically bereaved – it challenges us to remember that we have heard it, in the world, and in our own community.

 

The Torah’s version of the Akedah seems to offer some veneer of comfort over the horror of the story, since Isaac was saved and a ram was sacrificed in his place. But Sarah was not saved, and in her mind Isaac is not saved, and thus the cry of her despair, and his, is retained in this ritual, as “atonement” for her descendants.

 

The requirement of atonement is that we get woke to the terrible truth: children are dying. The hand that holds the knife is not being stayed. There is no comfort for this pain, and there can be no atonement that allows us to turn away from it.

 

  1. Teru’ah: Act Woke

 

The second sound of the Shofar is the teru’ah. According to Jewish tradition,

 

* It was because of the sounding of the Shofar that the wall of Jerikho fell, as it is written, “when the people heard the kol shofar, they shouted a teru’ah gedolah, a “great teru’ah,” and the wall fell down flat.”[11] *

 

In this account of the fall of Jerikho, the Shofar is sounded, but it is the people who make the sound called teru’ah, the staccato blast that is the second sound of the Shofar. Just as Sarah gave voice to the shevarim, so do her descendants call out the teru’ah. The voice of a mother who died helplessly in a cry of pain is answered here by children who remember that pain, and who call out their response, their connection.

 

Our makhzor includes this line from Psalms about the teru’ah: “happy is the people who know the joyful sound.”[12] In our so far rather horrifying investigation of the meaning of Shofar sounds, we might well be justified in asking WHAT joyful sound? So far the voice of the Shofar seems to evoke nothing but death and destruction.

 

But the teru’ah is a call quite different from the brokenness of the shevarim. The shevarim is a cry of anguish, and the teru’ah, in our tradition, is the sound of a cry of two states of being, both a shriek that knows loss, and a cry that seeks connection despite loss, through the experience of loss.[13] Rather than a cry of helpless hopelessness, it is a cry of pain and outrage. Outrage is, after all, the first step toward changing one’s situation – or the world’s.

 

To cry out in teru’ah is to hear a call of helplessness and to respond; it is to act woke. Acting “woke” is to behave in a way that, according to one source, “is radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.”[14] But not so as to sit back in cynical detachment – no, for Jews, acting woke must mean to act.

 

This does not necessarily mean that all will rise up to act together as one. As the teru’ah is made of nine separate notes, so we, as we raise our voices, do not all sound the same. That is why there is such a diversity of organizations that have formed to lift up the voices and concerns of different groups in our society. As the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc puts it, there are (at least) four ways of acting woke, just as there are four children of the Haggadah. There are: (1) the one who is overwhelmed, (2) the one who laments, (3) the one who negotiates, and (4) the one who resists. All four face the same reality: “Right now in America, we’re living in dangerous and unacceptable times. It’s precisely in times like these when we discover who we are as a people, as a society, as a nation. We don’t get to choose the historical moment we live in, but we do get to choose how we respond.”[15]

 

To learn from the Jerikho example, to act woke is to do what is necessary to tear down walls. There are stubborn personal walls of believing too much of what we read and hear in our media, in our government institutions, and in our own circles that we call progressive, and just. There are strong political walls built of our assumptions regarding the responsibilities of citizens for the acts of government. And there are massive social walls built out of our habits of work and play, of consuming and discarding, of comfort and convenience.

 

To act woke as an act of teru’ah is to find a way to hear and to remember the terrible shevarim that shatters our comfort, and also to be able to hear “the joyful sound.” It is at one and the same time to seek a compassionate balance between our understandable desire to live happy lives, and the understanding that some are denied that basic human desire. That is the teru’ah, the sound that responds to shevarim with recognition and affirmation, and yet insists on the hope that we can find a way to fulfill the mitzvah v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha, according others the respect and freedom of choice we seek for ourselves. In so doing we are woke if, in the Rambam’s words, we do the work to look beyond the shadows, toward the truth.

 

  1. Tekiah: Stay Woke

 

Now, you may be one of those who is annoyed by the halakha which directs that the Shofar is not sounded on Shabbat. After all, you might say, if the Shofar’s sound is so integral to the meaning of the holy day, it should be sounded no matter what day of the week it is.

 

It is the poignant truth that it was only after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple that the sounding of the Shofar was restricted. According to a 14th century source, there was one place where the Shofar was still sounded on Shabbat until the 11th century, and that was in the community of the great Rabbi Isaac Alfasi. The 19th century Rabbi of Kotzk explained this based on a Talmudic teaching:

 

From the day of the destruction of the Temple, the Holy Blessed One has nothing in this world but the four cubits of halakha. The four cubits of halakhah take the place of the Temple, in which the Shofar was sounded on Shabbat; and in the days of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, the entirety of the four cubits of Jewish meaning in the world were concentrated in his community.[16]

 

The voice of the Shofar hasn’t been heard on Shabbat since. For us to assert that we ought to blow off a millennium of tradition and sound the Shofar on Shabbat, then, we would have to have the hutzpah to say that the four cubits of meaning in our day are concentrated in our community. Better, maybe, for our hopes for atonement, to maintain the humility of a tradition that reminds us that the world is not yet redeemed, and that we are not yet all woke.

 

It’s not all humility, brokenness, and sin on this day, though. On this day of Rosh HaShanah we hear one more sound, and that is the Teki’ah. Teki’ah is a term used for celebration, as in another Psalm quoted in our makhzor: tik’u bakhodesh shofar, bakeseh, l’yom hageynu, “sound the Teki’ah at the new moon, in its hiddenness, for the day of celebration”[17]

 

It is interesting to note that this verse is not talking about something we can see and celebrate, such as a full moon, but rather the celebration of something which is hidden – a moon mostly lost in darkness because it is yet new. We can’t see it yet, but it is there. Jewish mysticism teaches that “there is an outcry within the heart that the lips cannot speak….this is the meaning of the verse ‘sound the shofar on the new moon, in the hiddenness of our celebration’.”[18] The Teki’ah calls us to celebrate something new, something hidden that cannot yet be fully seen – the answer we do not yet have, the happiness we have not yet seen, the justice we have not yet known.

 

There is a source cited in search of the earliest antecedent for the term woke. In 1940 the Atlantic Monthly ran an interview about a mineworkers strike in which an African American United Mine Workers official said to a reporter, “Let me tell you buddy. Waking up is a damn sight harder than going to sleep, but we’ll stay woke up longer.”[19]

 

At this time of renewal for the world and ourselves, it might well be said that for Jews to stay woke is to be newly open to the horror, as well as the beauty, of this world – to hear the terrible grief in the shevarim, and the teru’ah of responsive hope, and the teki’ah of celebrating that which can yet be. On Rosh HaShanah the Shofar urges us to see that the way to atonement is not through forgetting, nor turning away from pain and discomfort. There’s a reason why most Jewish legends are in the form of quests, and difficult ones at that: justice and wholeness do not come easily to us. Yet these quests all have miraculous moments, when it seems as if all the forces of good support our efforts, if only we make them.

 

There’s a final Shofar sound that we will hear during these days of Awe only twice, once on Rosh HaShanah and once to end Yom Kippur: the Teki’ah Gedolah, the great Teki’ah. * It is said that, at the End of Days, this sound will announce the end of homelessness in the world: “a Teki’ah gedolah shall be sounded, and they shall come that were lost in Assyria, and those who were dispersed in Egypt, and they shall all come home to Jerusalem, and give thanks.”[20]

 

On this Rosh HaShanah let the Shofar call you to remember the joyful sound of being able to respect the reality of both sadness and hope, and to respect their rightful places in your life’s beliefs and practices. Let the Shofar’s call awaken you to rededication to the vision of a world in which everyone is home, everyone is safe, and everyone is free to seek the birth and flowering of the holy potential of each of our lives.

 

It will take a lot of wakefulness to get there from here. There are a lot of walls to bring down, and many tears yet to dry.

 

The Shofar calls to us: wake up. Get woke, act woke, stay woke.

 

Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu, may you be written for a good year.

 

[1] Leviticus 23.23-24

[2] BT Rosh HaShanah 27a, among others

[3] BT Sanhedrin 98a

[4] Exodus 19.19

[5] Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer 41

[6] Raven Cras, “What does it mean to be Woke?” Blavity https://blavity.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-woke/

[7] Exodus 19.19

[8] Pirke d’Rabi Eliezer 32, cited in Aviva Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire, 124

[9] Zornberg, ibid.

[10] Midrash Aggadah Bereshit 23.17

[11] Joshua 6.20

[12] Psalm 89.16

[13] Yalkut Tehillim 89.16

[14] David Brooks, How Cool Works in America Today”, New York Times, July 25, 2017 //www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/opinion/how-cool-works-in-america-today.html?ref=opinion&_r=0

[15] http://www.jewishaction.us/sites/default/files/bend_the_arc_-_4_responses_to_unacceptable_times.pdf

[16] S.Y. Agnon Days of Awe (NY 1948) 80-81.

[17] Psalm 81.4

[18] Sefat Emet: The Language of Truth, ed. Arthur Green, 345

[19] Redding, J. Saunders (March 1943). “A Negro Speaks for His People”. The Atlantic Monthly171, p. 59

[20] Isaiah 27.13

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Kol Nidre: thanking the Movement for Black Lives

Why I have to thank the Movement for Black Lives for helping me to clarify my Jewish identity.

Once upon a time, years ago during a visit to London, I took a tour to a town called Salisbury where I actually got to see a copy of the Magna Carta. I love historical artifacts, and so I was entranced – until I got to line 5, or thereabouts, where I discovered that according to the Magna Carta’s medieval writers, none of its provisions would be applicable to Jews.

Once upon a time in the modern era, European Utopian Socialism was born in a rush of excitement over the chance to participate in the creation of a better world. We Jews were as excited as the next group, and we rolled up our sleeves to help – until we were informed that we were not invited. The anti-Semitism of early nation-state utopian socialism is one of the factors that led Jews to develop Zionism – itself a form of national state utopian socialism – instead.

It keeps coming down to being Jewish. Those British Jews probably were hoping to be considered equally subjects of the crown. The Jews of Western Europe wanted to be socialists, anarchists, comrades in arms. They wanted to be included in the great dramatic wave of human effort toward a better world – only to be told that, because they were Jewish, they were not wanted.

In America the story has been different. American social justice work – Jews have been involved in it all: the establishment of labor unions, the civil rights movement, feminism, and LGBTQ rights. Jews – even who hardly would self-identify as such – are drawn to social justice causes. We don’t necessarily call our social activism part of our Jewish identity. Sometimes it seems beside the point. We are involved because that’s what it means to be a good citizen, a good member of one’s community. We may even hold up a vision for ourselves and others of a world in which it no longer matters if you’re Jewish or Christian or secular, black or white or brown, gay or straight or trans.

In America the story has been different – or has it? Why does it keep being so hard, then, to be involved in social justice work as a Jew? Why does it sometimes feel that I am welcomed to feminist work as a woman but not as Jew? And why do people who know I’m Jewish keep surprising me by linking me with Israel when I’m acting as a U.S. citizen?

Jews Do Social Justice

Shir Tikvah is a shul which, like many if not most other congregations, was created to allow Jews to learn and grow spiritually, either ourselves or, for some of us, at least for our children. As we have grown to our current size (which is not any longer so small) we have become a home not only for Jews who want to learn and pray, but for Jews who expect that learning and prayer are only two parts of the three-legged stool that I mentioned on Rosh HaShanah. The third is g’milut hasadim, which we typically translate as social justice. So we do social action.

But G’milut hasadim isn’t exactly “social action.” It means “loving kindness.” We are urged by our tradition to understand that what keeps our world going, what makes life worth living, what allows our world to survive – is Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Hasadim: learning, prayer, and acts of loving kindness.

This is a shul’s raison d’etre. These are the three primary activities that a shul exists to offer. Everything else that we do, if it is not one of these three activities, it’s nice, but it’s secondary.

We have always participated in certain activities of g’milut hasadim: the Oregon Food Bank is a major recipient of our tzedakah, both during their Annual Blues Festival and also through our yearly High Holy Days Drive. We act in other ways as well – our Hevre youth group has developed a relationship with the NorthEast Emergency Food Pantry, and we’ve begun to support a women’s shelter called Rahab’s Sisters. On a bi-monthly basis we go there to serve a meal we’ve cooked.

We react to other causes and take our place in support where we can. The signs on this building indicate some of our causes: we are an LGBTQ Safe Space. We welcome immigrants. We reject Islamophobia. And we have posted the sign out there that declares that Black Lives Matter.

Since Ferguson, if not before, we at Shir Tikvah have been saying to each other that we have to do something.

We knew we must act: first, because we are liberal Americans, and this is an expression of our values. And second, because we are Jews, and Judaism declares to us over and over again that we must pursue justice. In our Torah, in the Rabbinical Judaism that created our prayers, and in the social justice movements our people helped to found and lead in this United States, we are exhorted:

do unto others as you would have done to you,

do not do unto others that which you do not want done to you,

and each of us and all of us are created in the Image of G*d.

How to Begin

Okay, so we have to do something – but how? when? where? We were not sure how to begin. We knew one thing, though: the time for dialogue seems to be over. You know the kind of dialogue events I mean: they might take the shape of encounter groups that gather dissimilar people in a room so that they could see that they are really the same, or holding a Freedom Seder at which Jewish hosts invite Black guests to sing Go Down Moses and eat matzah. That kind of event is laudable in its time, but only when it leads to acts. As we know, Pharaoh does not let the people go because of a song.

A few first acts which I undertook on your behalf:

*seeking out a black pastor – that didn’t work and in retrospect I know exactly why: I tried to schedule it, according to my convenience.

*attempting to get in touch with SURJ (Stand Up For Racial Justice), meeting local Jewish activist (and one of the local SURJ chapter’s founders) Eleyna Fugman

* seeking out books and articles, and reading them, and sharing them with you

Now it Gets Complicated

In our conversations, Eleyna shared with me her disappointment and discouragement over the anti-Semitism she experienced on the left, and the lack of understanding within SURJ

Then the Movement for Black Lives issued their platform. It is tremendously intelligent and sophisticated. The introduction impressed me very much.

It is organized into xix sections; one of them calls for divestment and investment. “A cut in US military expenditures and a reallocation of those funds to invest in domestic infrastructure and community well being” sounds wonderful to me.

And then in the second paragraph of the Platform, in the context of their argument for divestment from military support for Israel, words were posted that described Israel as a state that was committing genocide against the Palestinians.

There has been a lot of dismayed public comment by different Jewish organizations. Some have asked whether Jews can support the Movement for Black Lives; others have asked how Jews can do anything else. Many Jews were deeply pained.

Is this another case of “everyone is welcome to help – except the Jews”? Again??

I found myself wanting to reach out my white hands to help lift others up to my place of privilege – certainly that’s laudable, right? – but reacting as a Jew to the Movement for Black Lives platform, feeling misunderstood, attacked, and rejected.

It took me a while to realize the bifurcation that I experience, between being Jewish and being White.

I realized that I wanted to have it both ways: to be White when it suited me, and to be Jewish when that part of my identity was called forth. But what I have learned is that the two identities don’t exactly mesh.

Duh. You can be White and not Jewish. And you can be Jewish and not White.

I once wrote an entire book offering the perspective that one’s Jewish identity can ground all of one’s acts and guide one through all of life’s challenges, and I did not see that my reaction to Black Lives Matter was really part of my White liberal values system, not my Jewish values system. Like many other Jews in this country, I had assimilated my Jewishness into that of the American social justice movement.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

Jews tend to quote civil rights ideals first when we engage in racial justice efforts. We demand of our society that it live up to its promise of equality for all its citizens. We bring out the Jewish citations that support the demand, sure, but we are making an American demand, not a Jewish demand.

But watch what happens: I join a group as an American, and I work for the ideals the group shares. Then something happens that makes me feel singled out as a Jew. No one in the group necessarily even knows that I am Jewish, because I joined the group as an American. Now I have to come out as a Jew, and defend myself as a Jew, and maybe either leave, or have to ask for equal treatment as a Jew in this group. I thought I was equal in this work, and now I feel vulnerable in my Jewishness.

Here is the issue: we can’t have it both ways. We can’t be American when we join a group and then turn Jewish when we’re made to feel vulnerable.

There are Jews who know this – they’ve dropped their Jewish identity as much as a Jew can. They may feel that the work they are doing, the human beings they are being, they are despite their people.

But we who are here this evening have not made that choice. What does our choice look like?

 

The Way Forward

What does Jewish involvement in the struggle for racial justice look like?

As American Jews, we have always taken for granted that there is plenty of overlap between those two identities. And there is, especially when we are encouraged by so many American social influences to conform.

Do you remember the Gary Larsen cartoon of the penguin, indistinguishable in a sea of penguins, singing “I Gotta Be Me”?

Do you remember the Reebok advertising campaign which suggested that if you buy the same pair of sneakers from their company as 100 million other Americans, you will be in some way asserting your individuality? “Reebok lets you be you.”

Some years ago Rev Tara of Bridgeport UCC and I organized a lunch for our two congregations – United Church of Christ and Shir Tikvah – so that we could explore our differences, but each table reported back on all the similarities they found.

But true diversity doesn’t require you to minimize your difference with another human being; it celebrates the wonder of so many different ways to be human.

As our tradition teaches: “The amazing thing about the creation of human beings is this: when many coins are stamped from the same mold, all the coins are exactly alike. But the Holy One stamps every human being with the Image of G*d, yet no two are exactly alike.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5)

This bit of ancient Jewish insight can help us begin to consider how all of us who work for social justice are alike, yet each of us has an essential quality that is different from all others.

How does Jewish teaching and a Jewish perspective help? What can it offer us? Only the opportunity to explore the essential quality that each of us has more deeply, in the hopes that it will help us feel more grounded, more confident, and more powerful when we go out into the world as human beings bearing a stamp that happens to be Jewish.

It’s interesting to consider the difference between a prevailing American idea and a Jewish idea by comparing the words “charity” and “tzedakah”. Charity is derived from the Latin word caritas, which is related to love, and the heart as the seat of emotion. Tzedakah has a very different etymology: it is derived from the word tzedek, which means justice. It has nothing to do with love. Therefore, a Jewish understanding of the concept of tzedakah is not interested in whether you love the person you are called upon to help. It is a simple matter of justice that you must help – no matter how you feel about it.

It’s fascinating to take this focus and consider the difference, in essence, between the concepts of social justice and g’milut hasadim.

Social justice is defined as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. The political philosopher John Rawls wrote in his book A Theory of Justice that, “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others.”

The Jewish principle of g’milut hasadim is, actually, not too different from this, except in one respect. It may be possible for a society to be just in an indifferent way. This is actually a good way to think about the Jewish definition of justice – it doesn’t matter how you feel, you must act justly.

But that’s not considered good enough in our Jewish tradition. Otherwise we would have asserted that the three pillars that hold up our world are learning, prayer and justice. And indeed, that’s exactly what I used to say, deliberately mistranslating the last pillar’s meaning in order to bring it into line with social justice rhetoric.

What g’milut hasadim literally stands for is the principle that justice is expected, but that it is not enough. In the same way that people don’t want to be tolerated but accepted, Jewish tradition insists that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard than justice. Justice is expected from every Jew; what we are to aim for is kindness: acts of loving kindness.

Why do racial justice as a Jew? because it demands that we aim higher than justice, not only for those we seek to help, but for ourselves as well. We can’t help others if we aren’t helping ourselves as well – and denying part of who we are is not helping.

Tomorrow during our regular Yom Kippur discussion at 2pm I will share with you a page of Jewish teachings that I collected as a starting point for us, so that we can begin to learn our way into Jewish racial justice work.

Why? because we’ve learned that we can’t be who we’re not. So we might as well be who we are….

_______________________________________

Identity is not merely about recognition, or acceptance, or representation; it is about becoming a people again, about finding our potential within that, about power. We must acknowledge the advantages we’ve been given by this system so we can use them as weapons to destroy it. But we must also acknowledge that we are an oppressed people — not so that we can evade responsibility for the ways we are empowered, or use our victimhood to shame and tear others down — but so we can align ourselves deeply and authentically with the titanic struggles for collective freedom before us. It is the only way we will ever genuinely stand in solidarity with others, the only way we will truly become our most powerful selves, the only way we will become whole again.

And as we become whole, we can play an even more grounded role as partners in the struggle for a free Palestine by refusing to allow Israel and the US to shed blood in our name. We can show up in this moment for Black Lives as true partners, as we are being called upon to do. Those of us who are white can disrupt white supremacy by using the benefits it gives us as tools to destroy it, sabotage it by reclaiming our Jewishness and refusing to do its dirty work. We can make all the movements of which we are a part stronger, smarter, fiercer, kinder, and funnier. And we can reclaim the peoplehood that is at our fingertips, protect our people — love our people. We can even, perhaps, give ourselves permission to grieve — for ourselves and our children, but also for our Savtas and Sabas who never got the chance.

Imagine how the entire movement would benefit from this, how much better off we’d all be if we fought from a place of wisdom, pride, and love, instead of guilt, shame, and fear. Imagine how much closer we’d be to winning freedom for all people. And this is where the lesson transcends the question of Jewishness and anti-Semitism and goes hand in hand with the most essential questions the movement must ask itself today: What do weeach and every one of ushave to do to become our most powerful selves? We had better have a good answer, because becoming our most powerful selves is the only chance we have at winning the world we all deserve.

What a humbling challenge, then: to become whole again.

– Yotam Marom, Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion

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Today, October 11 2016, is National Coming Out Day. We need to come out – to ourselves, and then to our community – as Jewish. It is our Jewishness that will ground our social action.

And then it will turn it into something richer. It will be g’milut hasadim. 

רצון יהי כן

 

Shabbat Hazon and erev Tisha B’Av: a Shabbat of Vision

This is a Shabbat of vision, and of the center falling apart. Although it would be easier, more poetic, to see a vision rising from destruction, life these days is not so lyrical. Rather, on this Shabbat, the last before Tisha B’Av, the vision we contemplate is of destruction, misery and death:

עַל מֶה תֻכּוּ עוֹד, תּוֹסִיפוּ סָרָה; כָּל-רֹאשׁ לָחֳלִי, וְכָל-לֵבָב דַּוָּי.

What blow will fall next, as more and more violence and corruption is unleashed in the land? If the nation were a body, the whole head would be sick, and the whole heart faint;

מִכַּף-רֶגֶל וְעַד-רֹאשׁ אֵין-בּוֹ מְתֹם, פֶּצַע וְחַבּוּרָה וּמַכָּה טְרִיָּה; לֹא-זֹרוּ וְלֹא חֻבָּשׁוּ, וְלֹא רֻכְּכָה בַּשָּׁמֶן.

From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and festering sores: they have not been treated, not bandaged nor soothed with medication.

אַרְצְכֶם שְׁמָמָה, עָרֵיכֶם שְׂרֻפוֹת אֵשׁ; אַדְמַתְכֶם, לְנֶגְדְּכֶם זָרִים אֹכְלִים אֹתָהּ, וּשְׁמָמָה, כְּמַהְפֵּכַת זָרִים.

Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; strangers devour your land in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods. (Isaiah 1.5-7)

 

On the heels of this Shabbat, on which we are meant to face the very real horrors of our society, the Jewish people moves into the fast day of Tisha B’Av. This date commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans and the Exile of the Jewish people into statelessness wandering. On this date we remember what statelessness meant to us: the mass slaughter of pogroms, expulsions, and crusades, and the every day humiliations and persecutions of living in a society that did not recognize Jews as equals, or even as human.

Once upon a time not so many years ago I was told that Tisha B’Av is no longer relevant; it’s hard, after all, to feel the pain of past destruction when there is a State of Israel today, and, well, the weather is so nice. Who can relate when there’s a brilliant blue sky overhead?

The vision of this Shabbat Hazon answers: bring your eyes down from the blue sky to behold the earth beneath; listen to Isaiah; see that, although the Jews live in relative peace and safety, our task is to work for freedom for all. We must still hear the ancient words of the Torah, echoed through Pesakh Haggadah: proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants (Lev.25.10) 

On this Tisha B’Av we gather not only to mourn what was, but also to learn from it: to ask how did we get here, and what shall we do now with what we know? We come together to remember who we are, to empower ourselves through our tradition’s wisdom, and to plan our shared path forward into action for racial justice. Because there are still those who experience slaughter, expulsions, and crusades, and the everyday humiliations and persecutions of living in a society that does not recognize them as equals, or even as human. Because “them” is us, and if we do not remember and act upon that truth, we will never turn away from Isaiah’s horrific vision of what is and toward the consolation of what might yet be.

How to think about engaging as a self-aware Jew in the 21st century, yet so much a part of all that has come before us, here today? As part of the learning and thinking we all must do, I invite you to consider this brilliant offering:

https://medium.com/@YotamMarom/toward-the-next-jewish-rebellion-bed5082c52fc#.35uv3ux8q

And remember that none of us is alone in this struggle. We are not only here to comfort each other, though: our shared strength is only blessed when we use it to do justice. Thus we summon the last utterance of the Prophet Isaiah: “Zion will be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.” (Isaiah 1.27).

Shabbat Matot-Masei: the Long, Confusing, Chaotic Road to Freedom

In this week’s double parashah we wind up the Book of BaMidbar. The word bamidbar, actually three in English, is usually translated “in the wilderness”. But the root word, dalet bet reysh, can as easily be understood as “speaking”. Our ancestors wandered across a land that was unsettled, and that they saw as chaotic and uncontrollable. We, similarly, wander in a wilderness of words. They come at us from so many directions, and so many sources: media, social media, neighbors, friends, family, community, books, and, of course, from the inside of our own heads. Uncontrollable, and often chaotic in their impact upon us.

In parashat Masei, “journeys”, the Torah recounts every stop our ancstors made on their trek from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Similarly, every community that shares a sense of common purpose may be lucky enough for its members to feel that they are going somewhere, toward some vision of a promise of an endpoint. And for every community, no doubt, the story that is told afterward makes sense of what may feel at the lived moment very much like trackless chaos. No doubt there were many days of confusion along the way, even though now the Torah simply lists each campsite, so calmly that it seems boring.

What were the Civil Rights days of the 1960s like? We look back now and see a narrative, or more than one, and it seems that people must have been so clear about their vision, so much so that one expects to actually see a path open up under their feet as they progress toward Equal Rights goals more visible now, even if not yet achieved. But what was that time really like? no doubt, there was chaos, and a sense of trackless wilderness. It is only afterward that we can see where we were, as we tell the story.

As we tell the story, we give it meaning by the way we tell it, with the perspective we gain from the struggle on the way, but only after it is over, and the dust has settled, as we can see again. Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav taught that we, each of us, is a portrait that is finished only on our last day of life; only then do we see what we have created.

We don’t know the end of the story through which we are living now. We don’t know the meaning of the Jewish story of transition from the Rabbinic Era to whatever we’re entering now in our time. We can’t know the outcome of the Civil Rights Struggle of our day, or even the election cycle only a few months from now. And we are not privy to the Omniscient Narrator perspective on the Land and State of Israel. In all these cases, the final outcome is unknown, because we are still shaping the portrait through our choices.

We can only hope and pray to be as mindful and intentional as we can, with each other’s help, and to remember that each of our acts toward the good is needed. While we are wandering in a chaos of confusing and painful social change, which for many of us is accompanied by religious alienation and economic struggle, let’s try, as it is said in the Black struggle for Civil Rights, to keep our eyes on the Prize. And as Jews put it, to take care that each step carries us closer to the vision that we call Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah, “the Ideal Jerusalem”. Keep kindness in your mind and your heart always.

We finish this book of the Torah the way we always do: with hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “be strong, and of good courage, and let us strengthen each other”.

Shabbat Naso: Lift Every Face

I have been away, even away from media, on a month sabbatical to mark my twenty-fifth year as a Rabbi. This is my first opportunity to seek with you some sense of response to the tragedy that occurred in my hometown on Sunday.

That day was Shavuot, the spring Festival of the Harvest. We should have been delighting in our gardens and our farmer’s markets and the gift of green in spring in ways that are so Portland, and in the Jewish way too, gathering to chant the praises of Hallel and eating dairy and marking the gift of moral law given to our people on that day (the spring harvest Festival is also the day on which we remember hearing the Ten Words at Sinai).

Instead of having the luxury of taking a day to consider how we might focus ourselves more on our daily internal journey toward spiritual wholeness and community, using our Ten Words as a moral support, we are confronted with the horror of the moral failure of our society. And we devolve toward the same endless morass of media coverage, and the same awful words. Hate. Guns. Death.

Once again guns. Once again the craven moral failure of congressional leadership, using this tragedy, once again, for political interests, proving themselves unable to lead us anywhere except further into darkness.

Black Lives Matter has awakened us to the failure of our police to “protect and serve”. What might it take for the United States of America to confront the failure of our elected leadership to represent us? There are more guns than people in the U.S. now.

As a Rabbi, I do not seek to offer you a definitive answer as much as to help you find the ways in which Jewish tradition will lead you toward your own sense of your best moral response to evil. I do not say whether to respond; especially one the other side of Sinai, still with its looming shadow above us, moral response is an urgent requirement.

What are you, an individual, to do? Jewish tradition offers you clear moral guidance. First: no Jew is only an individual. We have the support of community with us. And second, that community’s ancient rituals have just offered us The Ten Words, our oldest moral code. They include these: do not murder.

* don’t let go of your anger at the swelling tide of evil our elected representatives allow by avoiding gun control legislation. They are guilty of aiding and abetting mass murder by their refusal to act. Use your anger; let it give you strength to bind up wounds as you can, offer your support to the grieving, and fight off the helplessness that you cannot allow to seduce you into believing that there is nothing you can do. Love, as much as you can.

* show up. Know that your presence and your voice must be used for a moral response or you are abdicating your responsibility. Those leaders who refuse to act must hear that we see them and we condemn them. Find a way to respond meaningfully: write a letter, send a donation, participate in a march or a vigil, and vote, every time, knowledgeably.

Finally – the media has told us that this is a hate crime against the LGBTQ community, and indeed, statistics show that for the first time, the number of hate crimes against that community has overtaken the number focused against Jews. The Pulse night club billed itself as a gay club. Politicians who refuse to recognize that are criminally avoiding their leadership responsibility.

But it is important to let Shabbat Naso remind us of something difficult to parse, and that is our shared humanity. When is it best to hold a group apart for sympathy, or for condemnation for that matter? When must we note our differences so that we can cherish them as our havdalah prayer teaches, and we must we assert that we are all the same, created in the Image of G*d, as our Judaism asserts?

The attack at Pulse was an attack on us all. It was an attack on certain individuals for certain characteristics but it was also an attack on us all. Gandhi once said “I am a Christian, I am a Jew, I am a Hindu, and so are you.”  Learning from that prophet, seeing where his words coincide with Jewish ethics, we can add a verse: 

I am gay, lesbian, trans, and bisexual; 

I am an immigrant Muslim; 

I am a cowardly congressman, 

and so are you.

Hate divides us. If love is to conquer all, it must reach all. Yes, vote the criminally irresponsible out, but don’t hate them. That is the yetzer hara’, the evil impulse, and when we hate those who hate we do nothing but continue to feed and strengthen that hatred.

The parashah this Shabbat is Naso, which refers to the method of taking a census used by the ancient Israelites: to count each one was to account for each one, expressed in the Hebrew idiom naso et rosh, “lift up the head”. We don’t count by bodies, but by lifting up each head to look each person in the face. 

When we do that, when we lift every face, we see the human in each one, even those with whom we cannot relate. When we all find a way to look into the eyes of each other in our world, only then will we find a way forward out of this horrible, horrible pit.

Naso et rosh, lift your head, and help others to do so as well. Help the grieving to look up toward the sun and its promise in this time of our spring festival; help the LGBTQ community to lift up in pride this Sunday; and may you feel the strength that you are offering echo back to you so that you, too, can find a way to look up, and around, and see G*d’s presence reflected in this still so broken and hurting world – a promise, just like spring, that the small bud of love will grow again and again.

Shabbat Miketz: Life Comes At You Fast

This week’s parashah is Miketz, which literally translates as “at the end”. In the Torah’s context, it refers to the end of two years’ time during which Joseph languishes, forgotten, in an Egyptian dungeon. The word ketz, “end”, is short and sharp. It echoes another key word of the parashah, vayikatz, which refers to the way in which Pharaoh startles awake after a disturbing dream, not once but twice as the parashah unfolds its tale.

The overall impact is of language which startles with its abruptness. Life changes just that quickly: one carries on for endless days until, suddenly and shockingly, everything changes. Pharaoh is shocked out of sleep and complacency; Joseph is hauled up out of the dungeon with no warning, brought to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. We go on day by day with our lives, consuming fossil fuels or throwing things “away”, until, suddenly, the reality of climate change bursts upon us, and we have to have emergency meetings in Paris.

Life seeems to change that quickly. Even when we have a sense of warning, and think we have time to prepare, the actual moment of impact can be shockingly sudden. 

But the work of that change is actually slow, even plodding, and full of blind alleys. What seems a sudden sprouting is really the result of greater forces at work than we can possibly manage, or even discern – not to mention the forces that grind themselves out before their impact can become known. Once again we realized that we are not in control of our lives, nor of what happens to us. 

As is often said, all we can control is our response. And we sabotage our responses in many ways: we become afraid to move, we underestimate our capacity to act, we let the momentary imbalance of the shock send us into a rabbit hole of panic. 

This all sounds very personal, but it is also global. We are who we are, regardless of the scale.  And it is true that, in ways we do not easily feel in our bones, our individual responses have meaning.

We can choose as individuals to join a march to express our individual convictions, to commit to some small act to lighten our single demand on the planet, to reach for a new degree of kavvanah, mindfulness, in all our acts – and in so doing discover that many others are marching, committing, and reaching in the same way. 

During this dark time, as we struggle with so many invitations to despair, I offer you one specific act to heighten the meaning of the Hanukkah menorah you light this year (I recommend doing it on the 8th night, when the menorah is fully ablaze):  https://www.vsgoliath.org/action/blacklivesmatter-chanukah/. One small way to say to the forces of evil that they will not win. We have their number.

Life comes at us fast – but Shabbat is here to give us a moment to focus, and that slows everything down just enough. This evening we mark T’ruah’s call for a national Human Rights Shabbat. Spend some time on this Shabbat, in shul with your community if you can, lighting a candle, and meditating in its light upon how together we can help each other not to panic, to recognize our ability to respond, and then, to do so to the best of our ability.

shabbat shalom and Hanukkah sameakh!