Praying After Pittsburgh

I am a Rabbi who is privileged to serve an intentional community which takes the form of an independent congregation. We are the only Jewish congregation on the east side of Portland Oregon. We are not only independent but young – only 15 years old – and thus tend to carefully think through our every act. While some might say we often indulge in over-thinking our issues, it seems to me that it’s hard to spend too much time musing, sharing our thoughts and commiserating regarding the growing sense of fear we share as Jewish U.S. citizens.

 

Our congregation’s median age is about 40, and many of our members are young parents. Like many welcoming and progressive congregations, we count many LGBTQI+ identified Jews, some Jews of Color, and a fair number of committed non-Jews – I like to call them “fellow travelers” – among our congregational family. Many of our members have had to fight to feel equally included in the Jewish peoplehood of U.S. society. It is a harsh irony that those who have struggled to be counted in our Jewish minyan of prayer, study and mutual support now feel unsafe in that identity. They now feel comfortable in a place of prayer – and now they are targets. Life is funny that way.

 

By far the most heartbreaking conversation I have had as Rabbi or as a Jew about the Pittsburgh massacre of Jews at prayer was the one I had recently at a gathering of the parents of our youngest children.

 

“As an adult, I feel I know what to do. I’m okay. I can understand what happened, in terms of Jewish history, and anti-Semitism, and the social chaos of this moment,” said one mother. “But as a parent, I’m lost.” Another added through tears, “I just don’t know what I have to do to keep my children safe.”

 

This is the long-dawning, terrible truth of our age: there is no safety. Certainly, we all know this theoretically; that at any moment, an accident could happen or an illness strike, G*d forbid. But this is different, because the evil from which we would shield our children is deliberate. When I’m at the gym, I’ve been thinking this week about the character of the mother in the old movie “The Terminator.” The magical thinking in which a parent might wish to indulge is exacerbated by such Hollywood movies, in which a mother of a threatened child goes about becoming strong enough to shield him – and coincidentally save the world. In the real world, mothers and children are, regularly, swept away together.

 

Waking up is difficult for us. We Jews don’t have the psychic muscles for this – we who have been able to take refuge in white privilege, and succeeded in integrating ourselves into mainstream, affluent U.S. society. We can’t cope with the level of stress our persecuted ancestors took for granted in their lives. Many of my people were already complaining of unbearable levels of stress and no sense of how to deal with it.

 

We are only now beginning to be able to understand the concrete reality of what it means to live in a world in which our children are not safe, just as mothers of black and brown babies and LGBTQI+ mothers and indigenous mothers – and fathers – have known for a long, weary, soul-destroying time. What we need to learn from them is this: There is no safe space for any of us right now. Safety cannot be carved out of the terror of our days. New Zealand has closed its doors and Canada looks at us askance; we can’t buy a pied-a-terre in some other saner place. There is no way to hold ourselves apart from the coming cataclysm, and be safe while all others suffer around us. As Anne Frank presciently wrote, I can hear the approaching thunder, which will destroy us too.

 

I don’t use my phone on Shabbat. On that morning, the news about the massacre at the Tree of Life congregation was shared with me five minutes before I was to begin to lead my own congregation in prayer. We were calling a young girl up to the Torah for the first time, as a bat mitzvah. I determined not to announce what had happened, lest her family’s joy be overshadowed by the horror just outside the door. We who knew sang with more fervor than usual, I think, and more joy – joy is also a form of defiance. And I thought to myself, there are worse ways to go than leading prayer, in the midst of something meaningful on which I’ve built my life. Better, even, perhaps, than the random accident or illness, in some way.

 

We opened our doors the next evening to welcome about two hundred people who sought solace with us in vigil. We lit candles and we hugged each other, and the we went back out into the uncertainty of our lives. What my people and I are realizing is that in the end, our lives are not made meaningful by living them in safety but with intention. It’s an old High Holy Days trope but now with renewed intensity: who by fire? who by water? the old prayer doesn’t ask whether or not we are going to die, but only that we consider how.

 

My people and I stand at a place where two paths diverge. Many of us will opt for the more guarded, more armed, and more anxious effort to keep ourselves safe. But in the end, it’s not really about safety. It’s all about what you are doing when death finds you. I will do my best to help my people find the way to lead with integrity, not with fear, for however many days we have. In this way, I believe, the memory of each of us can be a blessing.

 

As I say to my people: hazak hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other, and we will be all right, no matter what comes.

 

Advertisements

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

Asara b’Tevet: Countdown to January 20 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Sh’lakh-L’kha: When the Safe Choice is a Dead End

This week in our parashah it all goes wrong, suddenly. Moses sends twelve scouts, each of them a leader of a tribe, to survey the land just ahead, the Land to which G*d promised to lead them. We are literally there already – until the Promised Land abruptly becomes a place to far to reach in one lifetime, it’s really not a long distance. The Israelites were standing on the threshold of the promise geographically, yet they discovered that they were not, spiritually, anywhere close.

What went wrong? The scouts return with two reports. Ten of these leaders of the people tell stories of large, fortified cities guarded by foreign giants; the Israelites seem justified in being shocked, and frightened. They paint a lurid picture of the dangers that lurk so close by. And all the while, two scouts keep on insisting that yes, it did seem scary, but it’s not as if we are unprepared, and, after all, G*d is with us.

Elected leaders of a people who use fear to rally people to their version of reality, while other leaders try to offer a reasonable voice that respects both sides. At its essence, there is no difference between this ancient story and our own day – immigration, gun safety, treatment of minorities among us, all these conversations are held hostage by fear mongering.

Panic ensues. Grumblings over the discomforts of the trail, which started last week, become louder, and the idea that someone threw out last week as an obviously absurd expression of disaffection – “let’s go back to Egypt” has actually become, this week, a plan that people are taking seriously.

No one really believes that so-and-so can become an elected leader, really…..

No one really thinks that the referendum can possibly go that way…

No one would really credit that we were better off before the Affordable Care Act….

Until it happens.

Fear has led them to rebel against the authority they elected to follow out of the hardships of slavery in Egypt. Not only the authority of Moshe and Aharon, but of the G*d they represent as well. Everything had seemed so settled and organized: the Ten Words that become a Covenant, the Mishkan built, the priests ordained and ready to go. But now the seeming stability is a crumbling facade. 

Back to Egypt? can anyone truly believe that this nonsense is the right path forward for our people?

Why do the Israelites give in to their fear? Is it only logical that they opted to believe the majority report? Neuroscience has established that “when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off.” Even if the only way to survive is to take a risky leap, fear will keep most of us crouched in place. 

In our own lives we face choices that seem risky, of which we are afraid. We may seek a sort of majority report from modern scouts (aka anyone who we think knows more than we do), and if a number of studies align we may be persuaded of a truth. Yet we have come to know that another study will be published next year, or in another generation, or when the technology improves, and we will discover that, perhaps, the opposite is true. 

There are limits to what we can know based on evidence. Sometimes – especially when fear is a factor – the majority is wrong. Unfortunately, it is only after the irrevocable step has been taken that we can clearly see where we went wrong.

The Israelites knew immediately after that they had blown it. And while repentance may heal relationships, it does not repair consequences. The generation of slavery has forever missed its chance to enter the Promised Land by demonstrating that they are too afraid to take the necessary risks. 

What went wrong? The ancient Sages of our tradition found a hint in last week’s verse: “They traveled from the mountain of G*d” (Numbers 10.33). Rabbi Hanina explains: this teaches us that they turned aside from following G*d” (BT Shabbat 116a), and in the Middle Ages the scholar Nakhmanides adds: “they traveled away from Mt Sinai gleefully, like a child who runs away from school, saying, ‘Perhaps G*d will give us more commands [if we stay]!’” (Ramban to Numbers 10.35).

The Israelites gave in to fear because – if we allow anachronism in order to suggest relevance – they were not immersed deeply enough in their Torah learning and in their Jewish practices. Ignorance allows fear to take hold – and for Ramban, the first step that leads away from mitzvot ends in an avoidable catastrophe that some grownup thoughtfulness – the kind afforded by learning, and faith in the community’s vision – could have prevented.

May we keep ourselves far from fear, with each other’s help and support, and may we do what we can to allay our neighbors’ fear through doing justice with them and for them.

Shabbat Ki Tisa: You, Too, Belong to Shabbat

This parashat hashavua is famous for a terrible breach in the relationship between G-d and the People Israel. That golden calf tends to overshadow the rest of the parashah even for those of us on the Triennial Cycle, who only read that specific passage once in three years!

This year we read the first third of parashat Ki Tisa, which begins with concluding instructions for creating the Mishkan, the sacred space the Israelites are about to build. We have spent weeks already talking about the design, the volunteers who will coordinate, and the resources that must be gathered. Now, when we seem just about ready to begin, and excitement is building, suddenly we are confronted with what seems like a non sequitur. Suddenly, it’s Shabbat:

יב  וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.

12 G-d spoke to Moses saying:

יג  וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ:  כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם–לָדַעַת, כִּי אֲנִי ה’ מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.

13 Speak to the People of Israel. Tell them: You must observe My Shabbat, because it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that it is I, HaShem, that makes you holy.

יד  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ.

14 So observe the Shabbat, for it is holy for you; anyone that dismisses it will die, and whoever does work on it, will be cut off from the people.

Suddenly we are brought up short with a serious warning. Don’t get distracted by your enthusiasm for this task, we are told. The message is clear and simple:

1. Building the holy space cannot be allowed to take precedence over what makes the space holy. That is, the means must be aligned with the end. A Jewish sacred space cannot be constructed on Shabbat. Nor can it be constructed unethically.

2. What makes Shabbat holy is that it is a sign between the Jewish people and their G-d. The Mishkan is going to be a visible sign of the Jewish people’s dedication to HaShem, and even though concrete, touchable signs are comforting to us human beings, we are being told here that the visible and tangible is not “more” of a sign than Shabbat. The day of rest, of rising above one’s work and one’s week, is the most profound sign of all.

3. Anyone who dismisses its importance will end up “dead” to it. This is simple human logic. It is demonstrably true that those who diminish the Shabbat are diminished in their attachment to the Jewish people, Jewish causes, and Jewish community. Those Jews who choose to work on Shabbat, making it no more than one more day, are by way of that choice also cutting themselves off from belonging to the People of Israel in a real way. 

It is, of course, forever true that any Jew, no matter how distanced, alienated, and turned off, will be welcomed back to belonging if they wish to turn toward it. As the poet put it, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” 

All who are thirsty, there is water here for you. As the mystics observed, the only thing that gets in our way is our “I” – statements such as “I don’t have time”, or “I don’t fit in”, or even the unspoken feeling of not being comfortable in some way. Get that “I” to lie down for a while and you may find that you, too, are a simple human being who needs to belong, and who needs a rest.

Shabbat Mishpatim: Kavanah is in the Details

In contrast to other religious paths, Judaism offers spiritual growth within a clear and coherent framework. The word halakhah – our “path” – is understood more commonly as our “law” because of the many mitzvot (“obligations”) which serve us as signposts along the way. Our parashat hashavua for this week contains fifty-three such mitzvot, and each mitzvah commands us equally, according to Jewish tradition – civil, moral, and commercial law all come together here in a way that isn’t easy for our category-driven minds. Yet our tradition is to regard each mitzvah, each detail of our path, with the same kavanah, the same intentionality and mindfulness. We are to bring our kavanah to care we bring to settling a fight, restoring lost items, and respecting society’s vulnerable.

It’s a journey. And it is useful to think of halakhah as road law, actually – because of the myriad of laws governing our use of back roads, main street and highways, you and I can go forth on our daily journeys expecting, under normal circumstances, to stay safe as we go about answering our desires and needs for the day. The mitzvot you practice are meant to lead you somewhere. Shabbat is the epitome of that “somewhere” – it is meant to be the high point of our week, the day on which we know that we have, spiritually, arrived, even if the arrival is only partial. Summoning the kavanah for this is not always easy.

And just like a road journey, there are days when, spiritually, we can barely see for the storms. In the darkness, we anxiously look for the next road sign, struggling to to lose our way, and to bring any passengers we have with us – loved ones, children – home safely. These are the days when we most need the little details of all those mitzvot. They give us something small and regular and dependable to focus our souls, as we try not to get lost.

All those mitzvot are there to help lead you toward your kavanah, your intentionality, for Shabbat, so that it can become a shavat, “resting” of the soul. Lighting candles at sunset sparks a mood shift; singing L’kha Dodi as we bring in Shabbat at the shul triggers relaxation; having the family and friends gather for an unrushed dinner can redeem the whole week. We all have a different way into kavanah.

May your Shabbat be for you each week a chance to delight in all that is offered you, every little detail that reminds you to take care with each moment of our short, precious lives, and to come to know yourself in a whole new way which was, nevertheless, always there. 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

(T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”, Four Quartets)