Shabbat Nakhamu: Consolation Is In Our Hands

It has been a bittersweet week. In this week alone we have felt the sharp impact of pain on our relationships both near and far. The State of Israel passed a law that undermines the values of equality and justice promised in its own declaration of independence; the Federal government of the United States admitted that it has no idea how to re-unify the children and parents it has separated; add to this the fact that many of us have personal stories that keep us up at night.

Yet this Shabbat we are urged to find consolation. Despite everything. The haftarah for which the Shabbat is named declares that despite everything, there is hope if we will maintain our faith in that which is good, and in that which is just. All that has been cast down can yet be raised up: facts, freedoms, futures. Compassion, truth, and justice are bigger than any one human, and will outlast us all – we, who come and go like grass.

כָּל־גֶּיא֙ יִנָּשֵׂ֔א וְכָל־הַ֥ר וְגִבְעָ֖ה יִשְׁפָּ֑לוּ וְהָיָ֤ה הֶֽעָקֹב֙ לְמִישׁ֔וֹר וְהָרְכָסִ֖ים לְבִקְעָֽה׃
Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low.

Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges a plain.

וְנִגְלָ֖ה כְּב֣וֹד יְהוָ֑ה וְרָא֤וּ כָל־בָּשָׂר֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו כִּ֛י פִּ֥י ה דִּבֵּֽר׃
The Presence of HaShem shall appear,
And all of us will see it together, for that day is coming.
ק֚וֹל אֹמֵ֣ר קְרָ֔א וְאָמַ֖ר מָ֣ה אֶקְרָ֑א כָּל־הַבָּשָׂ֣ר חָצִ֔יר וְכָל־חַסְדּ֖וֹ כְּצִ֥יץ הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃
A voice rings out: “Proclaim!” Another asks, “What shall I proclaim?”
“All flesh is grass, All its goodness like flowers of the field:
יָבֵ֤שׁ חָצִיר֙ נָ֣בֵֽל צִ֔יץ כִּ֛י ר֥וּחַ ה נָ֣שְׁבָה בּ֑וֹ אָכֵ֥ן חָצִ֖יר הָעָֽם׃
Grass withers, flowers fade when the breath of HaShem blows on them.
Indeed, people are nothing more than grass.
(Isaiah 40.5-8)
In a week which has seen the destruction by our own City of Portland of the OccupyICE encampment that sparked a nation-wide movement, we can refuse to let that for which they struggled be destroyed.
In a month which has seen our fellow Jews in the State of Israel trample just as badly on civil rights in our homeland as the Federal government does here in the nation of our residence, we can refuse to let others define the values of the societies and peoples to which we belong.
And on a day – this day – on which over 2300 children are still separated from their parents, may each one of us find in the fact that we have not been separated from those we love both comfort us and provide us a compelling reason to continue to struggle for justice. Consolation, according to Jewish tradition, does not waft down upon our heads because we deserve it – it comes to us because we summon it for others.
Your communities of meaning and intention will continue to be a locus for you for opportunities to act, not alone and struggling, but together, holding hands and stepping forward into the work of raising valleys and leveling rugged ground so that we can all see and celebrate the Presence of G*d in justice and in truth.
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Shabbat Devarim: It Gets Worse

An ox knows its master and an ass knows where the food is; but Israel does not know, my people is thoughtless.”  (Isaiah 1.3)
 
The haftarah for this Shabbat gives the Shabbat its name: Hazon, “[prophetic] vision.” It is always chanted on this Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem which caused the Jewish people to be exiled for two thousand years.
For the last three weeks we will have heard the chanted words of warning: turn back to the right path, don’t you know what your behavior is risking? And now on this Shabbat we will hear
Your land is a waste, your cities burned down; before your eyes, the yield of your work is consumed by others….we are almost like Sodom, another Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1.7-9 excerpted)
The prophets of ancient Israel did not tell fortunes, they foretold the ethical consequences of behavior. These prophecies are put in front of us at this time because tomorrow evening will once again be the 9th day of the month of Av on the Jewish calendar, that day on which Jerusalem was destroyed.
It is Jewish practice on Tisha B’Av to mourn the destruction and the loss, and to consider how we as a people might have acted differently. It is not the way of the teachings of our religious tradition to look at destruction and blame someone else. Even as on Yom Kippur we consider our individual actions and their effects, on Tisha B’Av we look at ourselves as a people. On both days we fast and mourn; on both we seek wisdom to build a better life.
The story is recounted in the Torah of a person who discounted the public humiliation of another person, and how one thing led to another, and because of the fact that people responded to each other with assumptions based in distrust and fear, finally Jerusalem was lost. The striking aspect of the story is that it was a Jew who allowed another Jew to be hurt which started the deadly cycle. And so we learn from this tragedy that big bad things begin with small bad things; that when one’s attitude about the world is suspicious and self-involved, we all end up suffering from the social debilitation that occurs when everyone becomes self-involved.
The problem is called sinat hinam, “baseless hatred.” The Israeli journalist Bradley Burston (whom we once hosted for a standing-room-only talk at Shir Tikvah) in reaction to the Israeli government’s passing of the nation-state law this week, writes that
the Sages taught that the ancient Temples were destroyed [on Tisha B’Av] because of sinat hinam on the part of Jews – gratuitous hatred, hatred without just cause, hatred which does nothing but take a place of conflict, despair, bigotry, violence, and make it worse.
This week it has been one blow after another for us Jews of the United States and the people who love us. From the disaster of Helsinki to the pain of Sheridan Federal Prison to the betrayal of Jewish values in Tel Aviv, we must ask: what have we participated in allowing to happen? In what way have we allowed hatred to” take a place of conflict, despair, bigotry, violence, and make it worse”?
Our tradition teaches that wisdom is the ability to see the consequences of acts, according to our tradition. May we all – you and me, our elected leaders and those whose responsibility it is to tend our planet – become more wise in the days to come.

Shabbat Nakhamu: Sometimes the Answer is No

This Shabbat we study the second parashah of Devarim, Deuteronomy, called Va’Etkhanan, “I implored.” The name refers to the pleading of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, to be allowed to enter the Land of Promise which has been his life’s dream and every day work. According to the Midrash (ancient Rabbinical literature which show us how to explore for deeper meanings in the Torah text), after G*d does not relent, Moshe tries to bargain (an honorable Middle Eastern tradition):

Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if I am not to enter the Land alive, let me enter dead, as the bones of Joseph are about to enter.” … ‘No’ is G*d’s reply… Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if You will not let me enter the Land of Israel, allow me to remain [alive] like the beasts of the field, who eat grass, drink water, and thus savor the world–let me be like one of these.” At that, G*d replied, “Enough. Speak no more to Me of this matter” (Deut. 3:26).

But Moses spoke up again, “Master of the universe, if not [like a beast of the field], then let me become like a bird that flies daily in every direction to gather its food and in the evening returns to its nest–let me be like one of these.” The Holy One replied again, “Enough.”

This Midrash reflects that our ancestors did not believe in magic, nor in miracles that a human could pry out of the Divine; more, the Rabbis of antiquity knew very well from their own experience that bad things happen, even to good people, and while we may plead with all our heart, it may not change the outcome. Sometimes, even when we pray our hardest and most creatively for what we want, the answer is still going to be No.

This Shabbat marks the days after the biggest NO our people can experience; it is the NO to the plea to be spared, to not let destruction happen, to not let all be lost. Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av), now three days ago, marks our memory of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of our people. Much prayer seemed to be for nothing.
But this Shabbat, only a few days after that nadir, is called Nakhamu, “be comforted.” It seems a surprising and perhaps even offensive idea; awful things happened although I prayed and pleaded and hoped that they should not, how am I to find comfort? The Prophet Isaiah, who saw terrible suffering and destruction in his lifetime, offers this:
 נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵ-כֶם. Comfort you, O be comforted My people, says your G*d.
דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד י-ה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ. Tell Jerusalem to take heart, proclaim unto her that her time is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of HaShem’s hand more than enough reflection back for all her sins.
קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ י-ה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵ-נוּ. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Clear in the wilderness the way of HaShem, make way in the desert a highway for our G*d.
כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא, וְכָל-הַר וְגִבְעָה, יִשְׁפָּלוּ; וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר, וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places plain;
וְנִגְלָה, כְּבוֹד י-ה; וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו, כִּי פִּי י-ה דִּבֵּר.  {פ} The glory of HaShem shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of HaShem has proclaimed it.’
קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Proclaim!’ and there is a reply: ‘What shall I proclaim?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodness of it is as the flower of the field;
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ י-ה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם. The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of Eternity blows on it; surely the people are grass.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵ-נוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.  {ס} The grass withers and the flower fades; but an Eternal word stands for ever.’  (Isaiah 40.1-8)
All of us, and all of our struggles and pain, are not all that there is in this world. While suffering is real and terrible in one place, joy and gratitude are equally real in another. Rather than a comforting which promises an answer for our pain, so that we can understand it, Isaiah reflects the reality of the Rabbis who chose this text for this week many generations ago: we are like grass, which fades so quickly; all our joy and our pain fades as fast.
If it all passes, then our tradition offers us not answers, but how to respond, and what to do while we are here. Our daily prayers tell us that we are to follow G*d’s example as demonstrated in the Torah:
to somekh noflim, hold each other up as each of us falls,
to rofeh holim, care for those who are suffering,
to matir asurim, help those who are trapped to become free,
and
to m’kayyem emunato lisheyney afar, faithfully maintaining the memory of those who “sleep in the dust.”
The comforting, we are promised, will come of itself; not because we found someone to make our suffering central, but because we’ve found a community in which to make sure that it does not become central to us, through seeking and doing the mitzvot that make our lives holy, no matter how long or short, happy or troubled, they may be.
Thus, we are told, we are able to immerse ourselves in the ultimate comfort: imitation of G*d, leading us closer with every act to G*d. Rabbi Akiba called G*d Mikveh Israel, “the Hope of Israel.”

May this Shabbat bring you comfort in that you are able to offer love and support to others, and in so doing immerse yourself in the love and support and hope that you, and we all, need.

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

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. 

Shabbat Lekh L’kha: Go Forth, in Jewish

This week we cannot assert that the Jewish lifelines of Torah study and prayer are irrelevant for our day. This week it is almost unnerving how much the Torah and our Jewish tradition have to say to us to guide our thoughts and decisions.

The haftarah for this Shabbat asserts:

The coastlands look on in fear,

the ends of the earth tremble. (Isaiah 41.5)

There have been those who have told me, in the past and more recently, that they prefer my messages when they do not overtly refer to politics. In that, those who have shared such a thought with me are in good company with our ancestors and with our Jewish community today; we all would like to simply go home and rest at the end of a difficult week, with no thoughts of more that we are called upon to do.

But the Jewish answer is this: you can go tell it to Jeremiah and Isaiah, to Micah and Elijah and Huldah. Our great prophets declared, for then and for always, that to be Jewish is to engage with G*d’s creation in all its forms. G*d is expressed in the world in every human breath and every planetary utterance, and it is hutzpah to assert that we will curate our response to the mitzvah to exclude that which troubles our rest.

We can feel an urgency echoing over the millennia since our ancestors first told the story of Lekh L’kha, pulling at us – and this is the sound of G*d’s voice calling, although you may prefer to call it by some other name. It does not matter what you call it, it only matters that you hear it. 

We have gathered in larger communities and with each other, feeling a new feeling of needing to answer the call of this week’s parashah: Lekh l’kha, “go out from what you know, from the “homeland” of past certainties, the “parents’ house” of assuming safety and security, the “kindred” of spending time only with those who agree.

Our earliest ancestors – from whom we are all descended, not by bloodlines but by intentional and loyal acts – were known as Ivri, “the one who crosses over”. We are called upon this week as they were with the mitzvah, the obligation, of lekh l’kha, “get going”.

And our tradition does not abandon us there but is with us, with wisdom from our past to help us figure out where we are going. The text itself does not say: it simply commands “Get up and go from your homeland, your family home and your kin, and go to a land that I will show you.” (Bereshit 12.1) 

We’ve been here before, and we know what to do and how to do it. We understand that this command speaks to us personally: Lekh l’kha, “go to yourself, for yourself” – what do you need to change in your life to be a more whole person?

We understand that this command speaks to us communally: Lekh “go to yourself” outward, into the world, in order to find what is l’kha, “for you” inside you.

And we understand that this command speaks to us holistically: Lekh l’kha, one cannot go forth without going inside. None of us is alone, and we must not allow anyone to forget that.

This Shabbat let the ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah inspire you and remind you: we have been here before. As Jews, our history and our tradition support and guide us and we do know what to do, even if we do not know where we are going: we must link hands and go forward together. Without demonizing the other, without ceding the high ethical ground, without losing hope.

They draw near and come,

each one helps the other, 

saying to each other, “take courage!” 

Not only for ourselves in our Jewish community, but beyond “kindred” to communities and individuals across all lines of division, we must reach out: 

The woodworker encourages the smith,

The one who flattens with the hammer 

encourages the one who pounds the anvil.

They say to each other, “it is good!”

and they support each other’s work

that it may not fall. (Isaiah 41.5-7)

May it be for you a Shabbat of spiritual and emotional strength gained from Torah, prayer, and g’milut hasadim, acting with loving kindness, that we may not fall.

Shabbat Re’eh: What Happens When You Look

Parashat Re’eh is named for our ability to see and understand:  רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה – “see, I place before you today blessing and curse.” (Deut. 11.26). Blessing, we are told, follows the choice to comply (literally, “listen”); curse, if we do not.

It seems so very simple and direct an expectation: look, and understand; hear, and follow. But if we have never before beheld the vision we are must see, how do we know what to look for? if we have not yet heard the melody, how do we know what to listen for? In short, what does a new way, a better choice, a healed world, look, and sound, like?

Over the past year our religious community has been seeking a way forward in response to the racial violence which, more and more, we sense all around us. We know ourselves as Jews to carry on the learned compulsion toward acting for justice – and these days echo with the divine command to act very clearly. But how are we to act? What are we listening for, and what are we looking for?

After much searching and questioning, some of us gathered for a first effort to articulate our feelings and seek a coherent way forward on Tisha B’Av. On a hot August night we considered the terrible situation of these, our days, our own sadness and confusion, and what we might gain in strength and focus from our Jewish tradition and its teachings. We decided we would meet again this past Thursday evening, last night, to discuss an article on Jewish identity and the struggle for racial justice.

Then, yesterday, we were notified of a vigil to be held at the same time as our scheduled meeting; a vigil to stand in solidarity with a family mourning their murdered boy, only nineteen and killed by white supremacists on August 10. 

It was an interesting moment. Do we sit and study about it, or do we go and see, and hear? We weren’t sure what we might be getting into.

But when we remember that Jewish tradition teaches, ““Great is study when it leads to action” (BT Kiddushin 40b), it was clear that this was a moment in which we were being invited to make a choice: to seek to see, to try to hear. And it was fine. The gathering was large; the family was grateful; the learning was immense.

We will reschedule the discussion, because we need to have it. But last night we learned that sometimes, in order to see and hear, we first have to stop talking with our mouths, and instead act with our hands, our feet, and our hearts. We looked; we saw. We learned.

This Shabbat coincides with the beginning of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the Days of Awe now only thirty days away. I invite you to use some part of this time, some few moments here and there, to join me in doing some reading about our struggle to understand how to work for racial justice as Jews. It will be our focus during some part of the High Holy Days, as we consider what we are being asked to see and understand, to hear and follow, as in these words from a High Holy Day haftarah:

ה  הֲכָזֶה, יִהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–יוֹם עַנּוֹת אָדָם, נַפְשׁוֹ; הֲלָכֹף כְּאַגְמֹן רֹאשׁוֹ, וְשַׂק וָאֵפֶר יַצִּיעַ–הֲלָזֶה תִּקְרָא-צוֹם, וְיוֹם רָצוֹן לַיהוָה.

Is this a worthwhile fast? afflicting the soul,bowing the head like a weeping willow, spreading sackcloth and ashes under oneself? Is this truly an acceptable day to HaShem?

ו  הֲלוֹא זֶה, צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ–פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע, הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה; וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים, וְכָל-מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ.

Is not this a worthwhile fast: to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you yourself break every yoke?

ז  הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ, וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת:  כִּי-תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ, וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם.

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the poor that are cast out into shelter? when you see the naked, that you give cover, and that you do not try to hide from your reality?

ח  אָז יִבָּקַע כַּשַּׁחַר אוֹרֶךָ, וַאֲרֻכָתְךָ מְהֵרָה תִצְמָח; וְהָלַךְ לְפָנֶיךָ צִדְקֶךָ, כְּבוֹד יְהוָה יַאַסְפֶךָ.

Then your light will shine forth as the morning, and you will find healing; you will walk in the path of justice, and the beauty of HaShem will gather you up. (Isaiah 58.5-8)