Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Seeking Peace

In honor of the tradition of “Chinese food and a movie,” folks on Twitter decided to have some fun.  Using the hashtag #IfTheMovieWasJewish, individuals started getting creative with movie titles.  For example, if the movie was Jewish, the title of the movie might have been Willy Wonka and the Matzah Factory.  Other good ones were, Eat, Pray, Love, Call Your Mother, It’s a Tolerable Life, Silence of the Brisket, Little Shop of Horas, and Indiana Jones and the Mother in Law of Doom.

One suggestion that seemed particularly relevant this week was Twelve Kvetchy Men.  Not because we’ve probably been spending a lot of time with family (and our own, lovable kvetchy men) but because this week’s Torah portion rounds out the story of exactly 12 kvetchy men: Joseph and his 11 brothers. Kvetchy is an understatement, though.  Over the course of their story, we have learned that these 12 brothers can be rash, jealous, deceptive and unforgiving.  They take up many pages of Genesis in a long saga of vicious behavior…culminating in them plotting to kill their brother Joseph.  Only after this terrible episode and then years of maturation, the brothers are finally able to reconcile.

They live together peacefully, we think, in Egypt for about 17 years until their father Jacob grows ill and lies on his deathbed.  The brothers gather around to hear Jacob’s final speech. It’s quite a moment. Imagine them huddled close.  Think of how far they have come from flinging Joseph deep into a pit to die to now standing side by side in brotherly solidarity.  As one group they go to bury Jacob, giving him his last honor.

But then a curious thing happens on the way back from burying Jacob.  After those 17 years of solidarity and brotherly love, Torah says, “Now Joseph's brothers saw that their father had died, and they said, "Perhaps Joseph will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him."  The brothers send an intermediary to remind Joseph that Jacob commanded that he forgive his brothers for what they did all those years ago.  The problem?  Torah has no record that Jacob ever said that.

Are the brothers back to their old tricks?  Was there never really a peace between them?

The rabbis take this up this problem in the midrash[1]. They ask: What did the brothers see after the funeral that frightened them so much?  The rabbis answer: As they were returning from the burial of their father, the brothers saw Joseph go to the pit into which they had hurled him, in order to bless it.  He blessed the pit with the benediction: “Blessed be the place where God performed a miracle for me,” just as any man is required to pronounce a blessing at the place where a miracle had been performed on his behalf.  [The brothers stood off at a distance, though, and did not hear the blessing.] When they beheld him at the pit, they cried out: “Now that our father is dead, Joseph will hate us and will fully requite us for all the evil which we did unto him.”

One misinterpreted action is enough for the brothers to question years of living peacefully together. 

The uncertainty leads the brothers to do two things.  First, they do not approach Joseph directly – they speak to him through an intermediary.  Second, they lie – putting words into Jacob’s mouth.  But the rabbis ask: can we really blame them? They teach: “[the brothers’] statement is introduced to teach us the importance of peace.  The Holy One, Blessed be God, wrote these words in the Torah for the sake of peace alone.”

It is almost as if the rabbis are saying “the ends justify the means.”  Sometimes moving on, or simply finding a productive way forward is much more important.

At the end of 2012, there are many complicated feelings still in the air.  In some respects it was an inspiring year. The Olympics brought the world together; the Giants won the Superbowl.  It was also a very difficult year, with many issues still unresolved.  Civil war in Syria, the looming “fiscal cliff,” rebuilding after the hurricane, and the debate around gun control gearing up as we still mourn Newtown. Not to mention all the things we have each experienced personally.

We’re going into 2013 with this complicated desire to just shake off the difficult parts of 2012 but also with the aspiration to address these most pressing needs in our personal lives and in our local and global communities.

This week, Torah speaks to this uncertainty and our conflicted feelings. It asks the best way to move forward when the pain and mistrust runs deep.  We could read the midrash to say that we should bluff our way into 2013, doing whatever necessary in the name of resolution, but I think there is more than that.

It teaches the importance of compromising. It encourages us to seek help when we cannot find the words or the courage to face the conflict in our lives. It tells us that the path to peace is not a straightforward one. That even when we think we have found resolution, there is still the natural potential for self-doubt or backsteps.

To go back to the #IfTheMovieWasJewish meme, Mark and I recently saw the movie Lincoln.  Given this week’s Torah portion, one part felt very Jewish. President Lincoln is speaking to Thaddeus Stevens, a man with very noble aims. Stevens’ feelings: your principles should drive you forward, no matter what.  Lincoln counters with a more practical but powerful metaphor. He compares noble aims to true north on a surveyor's compass. True north is essential, he tells Stevens, but you also have to navigate "the swamps and deserts and chasms along the way.” If you can't do that, he asks, "what's the good of knowing true north?"

Trudging into 2013, I believe we’re pointed north. We’re girded with the right values. Our challenge is to not be blinded or guided completely by principle, though.  We’ll only successfully move forward if we acknowledge the muck and mire that stands before us.  If we navigate the politics, the complicated feelings, the fact that our past does remain with us, then we can successfully traverse the difficult issues – hopefully reaching that most principled peace at journey’s end.  Ken yehi ratzon.

[1] Midrash Tanhuma Yelammedenu 12:17

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Kindling the Fire (Hanukkah Shabbat)

Hanukkah began last Saturday night, perfect timing for my family and friends to gather together for our yearly Hanukkah celebration in New Jersey.

Not a particularly observant man, my father made a strange but beautiful request.  He asked if we could do havdalah, the Saturday night ritual that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week.  Well, doesn't he know how to get his rabbi daughter excited!  "I'll bring the candle," I told him, "you grab some cheap wine and throw together some spices."

Saturday night arrived and we gathered.  The Batons, our dear friends, joined us per family tradition. The kids looked quizzically at the yellow braided candle.  "It looks like bread!" "It looks like pasta!"  I explained the significance of each of the symbols and of havdalah itself.  Mark and I sang the blessings, drawing us near to the end of the ritual.

Candle burning with a mighty flame, I explained, "Now we're going to get very, very quiet.  If you listen carefully enough, as I extinguish the candle in the wine, you'll be able to hear the Sabbath leave our presence."  The room drew quiet, eyes were pinned on the blazing candle.   I tipped it slowly into the wine glass...and just before it could hit the wine to create it's one of a kind sizzle...just before the light went out…"beep! beep! beep!"...the fire alarm went off.  And thus Shabbat ended with a siren, and not a sizzle.

We all erupted into laughter, which turned out to be a great way to lead into the Hanukkah blessings and lighting the Hanukkiah. Luckily it was only night one and we had little fears of what the menorah would mean for the now-sensitive fire alarm.

The whole funny incident made me think about how we use fire in our tradition.  Fire comes around a lot, mostly because it is full of rich symbolism.  There's the obvious light metaphors.  “This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine”-type sentiments.

Consider the other fires we meet, though.  The fire of the Temple sacrifices, the pillar of fire God used to lead the Israelites through the black nights in the wilderness, the fire of prophetic vision, and, of course, the fire of the burning bush...the fire that burns but does not

That fire in particular represents God manifest in the world.  It reminds us of God's enormous power - the power to warm and inspire, but also the power to burn and destroy.  Our tradition teaches that the way we harness this Divine power makes all the difference. Will you use it to provide light in the darkness or will you use it to burn things down?

That is what Hanukkah is about.  The Greeks possessed a great fire – the fire of war.  They used their fire and power to destructive ends.  They scorched the land and burned the Temple in order to torture the people.  They wielded it large and without control.

The Maccabees, though, they found fire in the smallest of places - one tiny cruse of oil.  They took the smallest amount of fire and kindled it into eight days of hope.
  They used it to bring joy back into the world - not wipe it out.

May we create that sort of fire tonight. May these hanukkiyot that illuminate our sanctuary remind us of the Divine power that resides within each of us, and our obligation to use it wisely and carefully.  May we kindle it large enough to sound the alarm against indifference, hatred, and destruction. From the smallest spark may we blaze a light of love.  Kein yhi ratzon.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Truth and the Lost World

All sorts of people and disciplines try to define what is “real” in the world.  Science is after “the truth” as much as religion is.  But study science or study religion and you’ll see that “the truth” changes over time.  You realize that what we thought was real – what once was fact centuries ago is now considered ridiculous by modern standards.

This theme resonates throughout literature, but especially in the world of Michael Crichton.  He’s the guy that wrote Jurassic Park, Timeline, and the Andromeda Strain. His novels combine science with philosophy; writing fantasy that seems so real and so true.
One of my favorite passages comes from The Lost World. It concerns Jack Thorne, a materials engineer who specializes in building field equipment, vehicles, and weaponry for scientists all over the world.  In this particular section, he’s speaking to Kelly Curtis, a young woman fascinated by science.  In talking about some detailed scientific theories, he says to her:

"Are you listening to all that?" Thorne said. "I wouldn't take any of it too seriously. It’s just theories. Human beings can't help making them, but the fact is that theories are just fantasies. And they change. When America was a new country, people believed in something called phlogiston. You know what that is? No? Well, it doesn't matter, because it wasn't real anyway. They also believed that four humors controlled behavior. And they believed that the earth was only a few thousand years old. Now we believe the earth is four billion years old, and we believe in photons and electrons, and we think human behavior is controlled by things like ego and self-esteem. We think those beliefs are more scientific and better."

"Aren't they?" [Kelly asks.]

Thorne shrugged. "They're still just fantasies. They're not real. Have you ever seen a self-esteem? Can you bring me one on a plate? How about a photon? Can you bring me one of those?"

Kelly shook her head. "no, but . . ."

"And you never will, because those things don't exist. No matter how seriously people take them," Thorne said.

"A hundred years from now, people will look back at us and laugh. They'll say, 'You know what people used to believe? They believed in photons and electrons. Can you imagine anything so silly?' They'll have a good laugh, because by then there will be newer and better fantasies." Thorne shook his head. "And meanwhile, you feel the way the boat moves? That's the sea. That's real. You smell the salt in the air? You feel the sunlight on your skin? That's all real. You see all of us together? That's real. Life is wonderful. It's a gift to be alive, to see the sun and breathe the air. And there isn't really anything else.”

Crichton writes about science, he obviously believes in its value.  And so do I. Scientific discovery is exciting and essential.  It heals people; technology helps us communicate, machines make living easy or possible; science explains our natural world and our bodies, helping us to make healthy decisions.  It’s vital.

Crichton’s reminder is important though.  We can’t lose track of what’s real: our emotions, the rhythm of nature, the way we humans need one another.

These are the constants.  As Maimonides wrote: “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.”  It’s still truth, whether we call it that or not.

Truth.  We may perceive it, we may not, but it’s there somewhere. Sometimes we discover it, sometimes we ignore it.  A lot like God. God is that constant.  God is that reality.  God is that Truth.

May we try to happen upon that Truth, to open ourselves to our most basic joys and tranquil experiences and to discover what is most real.

Turning (after Hurricane Sandy)

In the days leading up to Superstorm Sandy, I thought my eyes were going to turn into hypnotic spirals. Like most, I was glued to the TV, watching images of the storm heading our way, hoping it would drift out into the Atlantic at the last moment. 

But as each day passed, the storm’s spiral remained well-defined, turning counterclockwise towards the shore it would eventually devastate.

Instead of turning out to sea, it turned on us.  The first day, lighting candles and eating all the ice cream out of the freezer was fun.  The second day, less so. Unfortunately, some of our temple families are still today without power, living in the homes of friends and relatives who have taken them in from the cold.  We pray that it won’t be much longer.

Here in Westchester we’ve suffered.  It’s crippling to be without your normal routine.  It’s frustrating for your house to feel like a foreign ice-box and not the home-base it is supposed to be.  We’ve got totaled cars and damage to our homes.  It has not been easy.

And then we turn on the news and we see neighborhoods in Staten Island, New Jersey and Long Island that have been blown away. That too sends a shiver through our bodies. Entire buildings, entire lives will need to be rebuilt.

Here at Woodlands, we’re responding as quickly as we can. Soon we’ll be taking up a collection for those most affected by the destruction.  We’re also putting together a taskforce to figure out when, how, and where we can get boots on the ground to help with the clearing and rebuilding.  If you are interested in helping in this, let me or Rabbi Billy know right away.

There is something we can do right now, though. And that is to give money to the relief effort.  As a temple, we’ve set a challenge for ourselves: raise as much money in 10 days as we can.  Why 10 days?  We’re taking a note from the most famous 10 days in the Jewish calendar: the Eseret Yamei Teshuva – the 10 Days of Turning – the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  During the 10 Days, we’re supposed to turn our souls back to God. We look to rebuild ourselves into better people.

So here we are months after the High Holy Days with another opportunity for turning and rebuilding. 

Our “10 Days of Turning” initiative started last Tuesday and will go until next Friday, November 16.  You can give online or send a check to the temple office.

Certainly we can find it in ourselves to take part in this turning.  After all, the spirit of rebuilding and turning ourselves around is in the air.

Because it’s strange fate that Election Day was on Tuesday, the same day our initiative began.  That day, the message came through loud and clear from the American people: it’s time to turn towards the future. Part of that turning will be uniting our fractured political system.  We’re not just rebuilding the economy, we’re rebuilding the way we discuss issues.  As in the case of Hurricane Sandy, the enemy is not one another.  The enemy is climate change, poverty, and limitations of civil liberties. 
Our country must make a turn towards rebuilding a better society together.

President Obama put it best in his election night speech:

“Now, we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It's not always a straight line. It's not always a smooth path. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won't end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.”

It’s where we begin with rebuilding after the storm, it’s where we begin to rebuild after a highly divisive election year.  We move forward.

There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that sums it up best.

Mild-mannered Calvin is stuck doing homework on a beautiful Sunday. When no one is watching, he dashes off to become Stupendous Man, defender of freedom! Stupendous Man heads towards the earth at an acute angle, using stupendous force to begin turning the earth in the other direction. Stupendous Man turns the planet all the way around backward. Afterwards, Calvin’s mom asks if he finished his schoolwork. Calvin marches along in his Stupendous Man costume, saying it's Saturday. He doesn't need to do it until tomorrow, thanks to Stupendous Man.

Folks, we’ve got homework to do.  We have challenges ahead of us in the wake of this storm, in the wake of the election.  Our challenge is not to turn backwards, but to turn forwards.  We need to take on the challenges, take on tomorrow. May we do so speedily and productively.  Kein Yhi Ratzon.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


There are some theological questions that are just unfair to ask a Jew:  Do you believe in heaven and hell?  “Meh…not really….but sorta...but not really.”  Do you believe in Satan? “Um…no, but yes, well, kinda.”

There’s no easy answer to these questions.  If you want to make an attempt, though, the first step is to ask someone their definition of the term at play. Do Jews believe in the fire and brimstone of an eternal damnation place called “hell”? No. Do we believe in Satan – aka the Devil – a powerful, supernatural entity that is the personification of evil and the enemy of God?  No.

But that name – Satan, or rather sa-tahn  – does come right out of our sacred scriptures.  We see it particularly in this week’s Haftarah portion from Zechariah.  So let’s try to understand it. First thing to know: except for perhaps one place in Chronicles, the word satan is not a proper name in the Bible.  Satan simply means “adversary.”  The Bible characterizes haSatan (the satan) as an accuser; a prosecutor in God’s celestial court.  HaSatan is a trickster figure, one that encourages God to test humans and their loyalty to Adonai.  In this role, haSatan is relatively powerless and cannot speak or take action without God’s permission.

The satan of Jewish tradition is not the ruler of some dark underworld, nor an adversary of God.  Rather, haSatan drums up trouble.  HaSatan sets obstacles in our way and tries to push us from the Divine path.

But how does it do this?  To say that haSatan acts directly in our lives would give this figure body and power. Instead, the rabbis explain, haSatan is the adversarial urge within us.  HaSatan is our evil inclination – that imperfect side of ourselves that strays us from doing good. It is that very human voice that harasses us and seduces us down the wrong path. 
There’s a Talmudic tale (Gittin 52a) that illustrates this more nuanced understanding of the satan character: “There were two people whom Satan incited so that every Friday afternoon they fought with one another.  Rabbi Meir visited there and restrained them for three Friday afternoons until he made peace between them.  R. Meir subsequently heard haSatan say: ‘Woe that Rabbi Meir has removed that man (meaning himself) from his house.’”

Two important things to highlight in this story:

1) HaSatan calls himself a man who has been expelled from the home.  This tips us off to something significant: haSatan is associated with human urges and weakness.

2) Friday afternoon.  Timing is everything.  The story says that haSatan would surface in the home just before Shabbat.  Shabbat is supposed to be the time of wholeness and peace, but with this strife emerging just before, neither peace nor wholeness was possible.

HaSatan therefore represents the conflict and disunity that pervade our human lives. HaSatan is the evil inclination that keeps us from a perfected world.  If we could only expel it from our lives, as it was expelled from that home, we could live to see a better world.  Notice, Rabbi Meir does not offer an enchantment or a prayer – he makes peace between the two people.  That act purges the home of haSatan.

If we are to “overcome haSatan” it will not be in some apocalyptic war between God and the Devil. Our tradition presents this figure of “haSatan” as a metaphor for our human struggle to make peace with each other. HaSatan represents a personal, human obstacle we must overcome. It is the constant struggle to forgive one another.  It is our struggle to be patient. It is our struggle to just sit and listen.
Just as Rabbi Meir had to return three times to the house, we too have to revisit that nest of wickedness that resides inside all of us.  It is not who we are completely, but it is a part of us. It is an inclination our tradition stresses we can control and overcome.
Mishebeirach Avoteinu v’Imoteinu, May the one who blessed our ancestors, the One who tested them, but loved them too, bestow on us the same kindness and the same faith that we too can push aside the adversary of self-doubt and pettiness to see a more united world and a better self.  Ken yhi ratzon.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Miri, Nachshon, WoodSY

 this drash was delivered at a service in which our WoodSY leaders were being honored.

Rabbi Miri Gold serves Kehilat Birkat Shalom in central Israel.  You can find her on a given Shabbat leading services in the beautiful outdoor sanctuary the kehillah calls home on Kibbutz Gezer.  Miri joined the liberally-leaning kibbutz in 1977 and established a home there. Over the years, her leadership role on the kibbutz increased. Hearing the call to join the clergy, she studied at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and has served as the spiritual leader of Gezer’s kehillah ever since.

As beautiful as it is, Miri Gold’s story is almost unremarkable here in the US. We’ve got plenty of female rabbis, as well as plenty of congregations and rabbis that fall for one another and serve one another.

But in Israel, this is all newsworthy. First, she’s a female rabbi.  This makes her a member of an extreme minority and a source of puzzlement to many in Israeli society. Second, she’s a Reform rabbi, making her a part of yet another minority group.  Liberal Judaism is still a difficult concept for Israelis, who, on the whole, consider someone either secular or religious.  The beautiful blend of the two that we enjoy here in America has not yet taken hold in the Holy Land.

So for years Miri Gold has championed her position and the role that liberal Judaism can play in Israeli society.  In an interview with the Religious Action Center back in 2006, she explained the cause: “For us to reach out, to get to Israelis who are searching for something, but they don’t know what it is.”

This mission is groundbreaking enough.  But Miri Gold, her community, and her Reform friends around the world, decided to kick it up a notch.  Miri would not just be an ambassador for liberal Judaism in Israel, but she would also be the one to break ground for all liberal rabbis – fighting for equal recognition by the state.

Orthodox rabbis in Israel have official “rabbi’ status.  This means they receive some funding from the state to work in their communities.  In order to get this funding, though, you must be recognized as a rabbi.  Liberal rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements have not, historically, been recognized as such.

So for years now, Miri Gold’s name has lived the hallways of Israel’s highest court. Using Miri Gold as the “poster woman,” the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) has been championing her cause – demanding equal recognition for rabbis of all streams of Jewish life and thought.

And this week, it happened. In a massive, landmark decision, Israel’s attorney general ordered that Rabbi Miri Gold and other Reform and Conservative rabbis receive the same benefits that their Orthodox colleagues enjoy.

This is about more than the money.  This historic decision opens Israel up to being the truly pluralistic, welcoming state it was always meant to be.  As Rabbi Danny Allen of ARZA said, “Israel’s Declaration of Independence guaranteed religious freedom, it has to be that this freedom is for all Israeli’s, Jewish as well as Christian and Muslim. This decision brings us closer to the day where this will be the reality in Israel rather than the ideal.”

By calling Miri Gold a state-approved rabbi, the state has also approved religious diversity.

And to add to the encouragement, this comes only two weeks after Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, another female Reform rabbi, was welcomed into the religious council of the Jerusalem suburb, Mevasseret Zion.  By joining the council, she was declared a partner in the town’s spiritual life.

Something wonderful is afoot in Israel.  These two triumphs bring a wave of optimism that’s splashing through the Jewish world.  We have always declared that pluralism and cooperation were possible in the Holy Land, and now we are steps closer to that reality.  This proves that the Diaspora’s engagement with Israel and persistent advocacy on the governmental level works.

These are watershed moments. Nachson moments, if you well.  Remember Nachshon? The man the midrash says was the first to dive into the Red Sea, thereby causing it to part? He’s the man, who despite the odds being against him, understood that the risk of diving forward into the sea was better than the slavery that stood behind him.  God recognized that passion and therefore parted the sea in his honor.

This midrash connects to this week’s Torah portion, Naso.  Behold, here we find Nachshon. We learn that once the priests and the altar were ready to take offerings, guess who was the very first to bring something? Yup, Nachshon.  The instigator, the initiator, the one, who despite the risks, offers himself up first.

Rabbi Miri Gold is the Nachshon of our day.  She did not take on this cause for the fame or for the money.  She did it in the name of equality and in the name of an Israel we Jews can be proud of.  While discouraging setbacks did occur along the way, she and her team plowed forward anyway.  As a result, we can see the seas parting.  Indeed, there is a Promise Land well in the future – we can catch a little glimpse of it now.

I bring this up tonight not only so we can celebrate the changing tide (which we should) but also as a charge to our WoodSY leaders – both outgoing and incoming.  First, realize you can make change.  Second, understand that change is not always quick. We get sidetracked, we get snubbed, we go unheard. Yet, discouragement does us no good.  Despite a setback, despite fear, our Torah teaches that you must trudge forward.  There is too much at stake not to.  Gather a team, work together.  You, the WoodSY board, are like the Levites in this week’s Torah portion.  You have been appointed the leaders.  There is a whole population of WoodSYites whose cause you have been elected to champion.  Your job is to seek those special individuals out, draw them to your ranks, do what is in their best interest.  That requires a lot of listening and a lot of open-mindedness, but it is your job nonetheless.

I’m thrilled to say that the Jewish State has taught us this lesson this week.  Israel is slowly growing into the “light unto the nations” we always knew it could be. Tonight we wish a hearty yesher koach to our Reform friends in the Holy Land.  We thank Miri and her comrades for their vision and bravery and we celebrate their victory, which we pray will lead to a more just and equal Israel, one we can continue to be proud of.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Shavuot 5772 - Standing at Sinai

Based on Deuteronomy 30

Our Confirmands just read one of the most compelling pieces of Torah there is.  It asserts the significance of the Sinai moment: “I have called to witness today heaven and earth.”  This is God’s way of saying "the world is watching." In the case of our Torah reading this evening, the world is watching as the Israelites reassert their covenant with the Eternal. Time and again we see that they answer to the Law with these words: “we will hear and we will do.”  In hearing, they witness God’s power, they witness the wonder, and it drives them to act righteously.
Each year at Shavuot, we stand at Sinai to witness the charge again. We are reminded of a choice: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse…” Across the world, people of all faiths, including our own, sacrifice to the false idols of bias and hatred. Just as the Israelites constructed a false god at the base of the mountain, we too give in to our basest impulses.

Yet, according to the story, that wasn’t the end, was it? No false, golden god dictated who the Israelites really were. They repented, saw the error of their ways, and returned to the mountain, a new people. Our tradition condemns bigotry and loathing, it promotes empathy and love. Even when we give into the former, we can always return to the latter.

So tonight we gather again at Sinai. This is a gathering of peace, a gathering of understanding.  We focus again on what is right and just. We hear the call to uphold human dignity. We hear the call to defend the poor and the vulnerable, because we too have been poor and vulnerable.

We stand witness to the possibilities ahead of us. We hear it again: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; choose life so that you and your children may live.” Tonight we reassert our commitment to do so.

We have to do this, because not once does Torah say we are entitled to blessing.  Always, in every case, we earn it.  We earn blessing through walking darkhei noam, the paths of pleasantness.  We earn blessing by loving God and the eternal beauty that emanates from that love.  We earn blessing by hearing God’s voice, crying out not from a distant ocean or a mountain peak.  We hear it crying out from our own hearts - the conscience that will not yield, the basic human empathy that, when we stop to listen for it, guides us to life.

“I have called to witness today heaven and earth.” The world is watching.  What we do matters.  Tonight, here in this sanctuary, at our imagined Sinai, may we choose life so that we, our children, our neighbors and the strangers that dwell among us may live. May we choose life so that righteousness may live in not only our generation but also in the next. Ken yhi ratzon.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Graduation 5772

On Friday, May 18, we honored the 19 graduates of Woodlands Community Temple.  I shared the following drash:

Our Torah portion this week, Bekhukhotai, tells us one thing pretty clearly: if you follow all of God’s laws, things will go pretty well for you.  In particularly, the physical land of Israel will treat you well: it will rain, your crops will grow.  Your enemies won’t bother you, you’ll live in peace.

But the reverse comes into play too. If you don’t follow the laws, if you break the covenant, God will break it too.  You’ll be punished with some pretty nasty punishments: physical afflictions, starvation, expulsion…but don’t worry, Torah assures, if you abide by God’s rules, you can avoid all of this.

We wish it could be that easy. The truth is that the world we’re sending you out into is unfair.  You’ll be rewarded for no good reason; you’ll be punished for no good reason. Every time this happens, you’ll be surprised by it.

We know that, and our ancient ancestors knew that. Therefore, I don’t think the Torah is advocating that you try to find a deeper meaning in this chaotic reality of our world.  Rather, I believe it is telling us that our actions matter.

Your actions matter.  How you approach both the good and the bad in your life matters. And like God, all we can hope is that we’ve given you guidelines and values by which you can meet those unfair and fair challenges of the world. 

That’s in the written Torah; that is the Torah we’ve shared as a group over the years.  That is what we gird you with as your step out into the world.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Shabbat HaMoreh

Each year, Woodlands honors all those in the congregation who taught throughout the year: Religious School, Adult Education, special programs, aiding in the Religious School, etc.  Here's just one thought on the matter:

The late Maurice Sendak shared this in an interview:

“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

This is precisely what we want for our children – we want them to consume Judaism voraciously. And not just them: it's also what we want for our adults.

We want you to see it, love it, eat it up

After all, that is why Torah is called honey on our tongues.  It is delicious!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Israel as Muse (Yom HaAtzmaut 5772)

What is it about the land of Israel that makes it act as Judaism’s muse?  Surely all landscapes have the power to call to human beings.

For example, “America the Beautiful” croons of the landscape’s grandeur. The writer, Katharine Bates, wrote of these sights after a breathtaking cross-country train ride from Massachusetts to Colorado. The ride gave her the words:  amber waves of grain, purple mountains majesty, the fruited plain!  All song worthy; all symbolic of the promise that the American frontier held.

Israel does the same thing.  Israel’s scenery, wildlife and geography have inspired poems, songs, and artwork for centuries. Yet, in some way it seems to go deeper.  The land of Israel is more than aesthetic beauty and metaphor. America’s beauty makes us feel patriotic.  Israel’s beauty makes us feel spiritual.

But why? To understand, we turn to Rahel, a great pioneer poet of Israel. Rahel Bluwstein is so loved and respected, she is known by just her first name in Israel.  In 1909, at the age of 19, Rahel arrived in Eretz Yisrael with her sister.  Inspired by the spirit of the early Zionist pioneers, she stayed for years, working the land on various kibbutzim. Life for the early pioneers was excruciatingly difficult. Malaria ran rampant and food could be scarce.  But Rahel and her comrades fell in love with the earth their worked in northern Israel, specifically the area by the Sea of Galilee. She wrote:

“I remember a moonlit night in summer, we rowed out boats toward the sands of “that shore.” We strode on the earth, preserving the footsteps of Abraham; we heard the echo of God’s words in the olden days: “I will make your name great.” We climbed boulders and looked down on the narrow fissures. There the springs quenched the ancient carob roots with chill waters…

I remember we planted eucalyptus trees in a swamp, where the Jordan River leaves the Kinneret and runs southwards to the Negev, foaming on the rocks, flooding its banks. More than one of us trembled with fever afterwards on a thin bed. But not one of us, not even for a moment, ever lost the feeling of thankfulness for our fate. We labored out of soulfulness.

The thirst was racking. One of us would enter the water with our favored container- a tin can once used for kerosene. What a pleasure it was to reach down toward the gravel of the shore, and to drink endlessly, like a forest creature, to immerse one’s burning face into the water, stop to take a breath of air, and once again to drink until exhaustion.

It is said: this water has wondrous properties. Whoever has drunk it will return. Is this why the young men abroad long for the quiet shores of the Kinneret, because their ancestors quenched thirst here.

On the Sabbath I used to set out for a rest in the nearby hills. So many twisting crevices, so many dear hiding places, so many green river beds: if only I could remain here all my life. It is good to walk down the path around the shore, until one sees the wall of the city and its round towers. Tiberius is ancient. It doesn’t look like a city to me, but rather a drawing in a school book about the distant past. Look, these stones saw the pale face of the preacher of Nazareth. Heard the oral law of the rabbinical sages…

The Kinneret is not simply a landscape, not just a part of nature; the fate of a people is contained in its name. Our past peeks out of it to watch us with thousands of eyes; with thousands of mouths it communicates with our hearts.”

Surely, there are thousands of beautiful shorelines across the globe. But Rahel picks up on a uniqueness to Israel’s shores. It has everything to do with our historical footprint there.

Despite dispersions, Jews, in some number, have continuously lived in the land. Walking in the footsteps of Abraham, our ancestors have all thirsted for freedom, connectedness and dignity. Every generation, at one point or another, has sought these in Israel.  On a whole, the land of Israel has quenched this thirst. Israel has always been the place where Jews could be Jews. It is where the plants and animals match those described in our most ancient texts.  Israel brings our tradition to life – like a storybook coming true.

It has not always been pristine. The land has produced our people’s greatest joys as well as our greatest sorrows.  But put together over the years, the land has shaped our people’s story. When it comes to Jewish history and tradition through he years, we can look at it this way: we wrote it down in Torah; we sang it in our prayers; we lived it in Eretz Yisrael.

As Rahel masterfully said, “The Kinneret is not simply a landscape, not just a part of nature; the fate of a people is contained in its name. Our past peeks out of it to watch us with thousands of eyes; with thousands of mouths it communicates with our hearts.”

Perhaps that is the intangible feeling we get when we travel there.  It’s the buzz of that ancient communication.

I felt it the year I lived there.  I settled in the new part of Jerusalem at 7 Molcho Street.  My life was much easier than Rahel’s. The supermarket Supersol was open down the block. No malaria threatened my life.  My biggest problem was a flooded living room after a hot water heater exploded. It was city life and I had to travel out to find the vegetation, which, in the small world we live in now, has groomed paths and hiking trails.

In totally different worlds…yet I still feel Rahel’s experience was mine. I too saw my ancestors in each rusty crevice. I heard their whispers through the silence that descended on Shabbat.  Trees, mountains and lakes, while found everywhere, seemed lined with ancient living.
And they drove me to write.  These flowers appeared one day on the walk to my house and caused this inspiration:

The year I lived in Jerusalem the winter was particularly cold
The mist descended gently from the 7 hills
And kissed the ground with weighty lips
Remaining low in the valley four months

Pesach cleaning swept the dampness from the corners of the kitchen
Brushed it out the front door where it dissolved in the sun
The water bubbles bursting with excitement
As they rose into the blue skies.

I hadn’t known it when I moved in,
But there was a thick rose patch that lined the walk to my front door
I didn’t notice stems or buds, just, one day, roses!

Their petals unrolled overnight
Exposing, unabashedly,
Open-palmed spirals of color
Tie-dyed whirls of springtime hallelujah.

Fanned out, sunsplashing,
the quiet gasp of resuscitation.
A triumphant return from the depths.
A surprising restoration of color to the soul.

I don’t know that anything was too different about these roses – although if you can tell me how they got this swirly pattern, that would be amazing.  All I know is that they spoke to me.  Would pretty roses speak to me anywhere? Yes. But for some reason, moments seem to amplify in the Land of Israel. The land speaks. It doesn’t have a monopoly on communication, but it sure does have a continuous history of it.

And the important part: as Jews, we’ve learned to speak back.  The land is not perfect – physically, politically – but just like Rahel and the early pioneers worked it with love, so too the Jews before them and the Jews after them plowed it.  They have plowed it for resources and for meaning. May we, here, continue to plow it in our own day – whether through planting trees or planting hospitals or simply growing relationships to our Jewish family over there. And whatever we do, may we continue to plow it for peace.