Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tongue-tied (Mishpakha Shabbat Torah reading)

Exodus 6:10-13

The Eternal spoke to Moses saying,

“Go tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to send out the Israelites from his land.” But Moses appealed to the Eternal saying, “The Israelites will not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh listen to me; and all the moreso, I’m a man of who gets tongue-tied!” So the Eternal spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them to take out the Israelites from the land of Egypt.

This isn’t the first time God has made this request of Moses. The first time God told Moses to speak up to Pharaoh, Pharaoh retaliated by increasing the difficulty of the Israelite slaves’ workload. All the Israelite support Moses had vanished as his rebel rousing did nothing but make their lives harder.

So this is Act Two. God comes back to Moses, tells him to go to Pharaoh. But Moses isn’t so sure this time. He offers three excuses: my people won’t listen, Pharaoh won’t listen, and with all this against me, I’m tongue-tied.

Moses has raised his communication concerns before. What does it mean that he gets tongue-tied? The text is unclear: it can mean that he had a speech impediment, or that he wasn’t a charismatic orator. Either way, think of the stress he was under. He was one man against the world. Whether it was because his speech was unclear or his message just wasn’t persuasive enough, Moses and his intentions were misunderstood.

It makes me think of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:

Calvin, like Moses, is frustrated.
No one gets his imagination. No one gets the vision he has of a more beautiful world.

Except Hobbes. Hobbes gets him. Hobbes is his partner in prophecy.

And that’s where Aaron comes in. In the portion I just read, Moses doubts himself and his effectiveness. So God comes back and commands both Moses and Aaron to go to the Israelites and Pharaoh. Maybe Aaron was a better speaker. Or maybe just having him there gave Moses the confidence he needed. Either way, with Aaron’s presence, the issue of being tongue-tied disappears from the text.

May we all learn to be the Aaron to someone’s Moses. Let’s partner to find the potential within each human being and take the time to understand what might have been lost in translation.

Kein yhi ratzon.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On the Mountaintop

April 3, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis, Tennessee supporting the Memphis Sanitation Workers. This group of local garbage collectors and waste managers had been on strike for two months following the deaths of two of their co-workers due to poor working environments. While the work environment was the catalyst, their treatment reeked of racism and economic injustice. They were the most vulnerable, most abused, most neglected but essential workers in society.

So Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis.

April 3, 1968, King wasn’t planning on speaking at the Mason Temple in Memphis. A thunderstorm was gathering over the city and King was feeling ill. Eager to rest, he remained at the Lorraine Motel while he sent his friend Ralph Abernathy to speak. Given the weather, they anticipated a meager crowd anyway.

When Abernathy discovered a standing room crowd of bright eyed, impassioned, impoverished citizens, a message was sent to King – and despite his health and despite the weather – King showed up. King adlibbed his entire speech, now known as the Mountaintop Speech.

Less than 24 hours later, Martin Luther King Jr. was dead.

It was a prophetic speech, a prophetic evening where King muses on the meaning of an untimely death, how fear of retaliation should not prevent one from doing the work of God. How despite the unpopularity of the message, the messenger must deliver it.

Watching the speech (which we will do in a minute), knowing now what will happen the next day, we can’t help but get the chills and know that this man was made of something holy.

And it is a divine coincidence that this year Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend coincides with the beginning of the book of Exodus. In his speech on April 3, King began with these words:

“Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land.”

He’s speaking of the chronicles of Exodus. A book about an enslaved people. A forgotten, abused people who will suffer for 400 years until a leader rises up and leads the people to redemption. A leader who will not make it to the Promised Land with them but will entrust them to God, to morality, to knowing that if you empower them, they can lead themselves to promise.

At the beginning of Exodus we witness the birth of a prophet. Moses enters the world and brings with him the people’s a dream of redemption. But Moses’ birth is not the birth of a messiah. Moses was an essential, charismatic leader, but only one in a chain. Destined to live brightly then die abruptly. So it was with King as well.

That night in the Mason Temple King not only linked up with Moses at his birth, but also Moses’ death on Mount Nebo at the very end of Deuteronomy. God takes Moses up on Mount Nebo and shows him the land of Israel. The land he won’t enter.

To this King spoke:

In the video you’ll notice that King couldn’t even finish his sentence. Overwhelmed, almost paralyzed he is received lovingly by the arms of his friends and helped to his seat.

In addition to his words, there is no greater image for us to witness. In what would be the twilight of his life, King was received gently by his friends – as if to say: “when you are no longer able, our precious leader, we will take up your cause.”

From the heights of prophetic vision to the cushion of a human embrace.

Moses too. The midrash teaches that the angels prepared a bed for Moses. He dies on the peak of Mount Nebo and was buried in the valley, cradled and mourned by his people.

His people. It is those people from whom we also learn. King did not imagine himself walking with Moses out of Egypt, he saw himself walking with God’s children.

The unfinished task as been left to us, the Israelites who now inhabit the Promised Land, the Americans who thrive in a more equal America.


The book of Exodus begins with a death: “Joseph died and all his brothers and all that generation.” Immediately following this death, the Israelites grow and thrive, but a new Pharaoh arises over Egypt that did not Joseph.

Our society has grown and thrived. Our challenges are not dogs or water canons or government blindness; our challenge is forgetting. Our challenge is hardening our hearts to further progress; to claiming the work has been done by others. Our challenge is thinking that the Civil Rights Movement is resigned to the past and that the video we just watched is a relic of history.

For while Deuteronomy says there never was a prophet like Moses that arose over the people of Israel, the Torah ends by stressing that Moses was just the messenger. The last word of the Torah is Yisrael, leaving the message in your mouths and in your hearts so that you may do it.

King took up this challenge and he has left the message to us. May we carry the torch, the dream.

When we are feeling unwell, lethargic, when the weather outside is stormy, let us respond to the call and hurry to do the mitzvah of speaking truth to the people.

We may adlib our way through this work, but perhaps it will be the greatest work of our life.

Kein yhi ratzon – may these words be worthy of coming true.

You can read the entire transcript of King's Mountaintop Speech here.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Making it Count

As December 31st nears in any year, we become inundated with the Top Ten Songs of the year, the Top Ten Movies, Top Ten New Stories, Top Ten Photos, and so on. While they certainly arrive in mass at this time of year, Top Ten or Five or Forty Lists always seem to grab our attention. David Letterman has been presenting them for years now; Casey Kasem made a career of it. Facebook is littered with them, as is our email. What’s the appeal to developing aTop 10 list?

Last week Dan Kois had a column in the New York Times all about Top Ten Lists.
The column shared a rather philosophical reason for our need to itemize our interests. He offers, that, “to make a Top 10 list…[is] to join in a great cultural conversation.” The conversation happens around the judging and compiling of information, as well as the inherent disagreement of order or inclusion. Ironically, despite how definitive it seems, the Top 10 list is really a conversation starter.

Kois also sees creating Top 10 lists as a sort of performance.
He shares that: “In building a Top 10, you are also creating, in 10 increments, the person you want to be, the taste you wish to have.” You can be a mix of bold and classical, nutty and refined. Your personal nuance is on display.

Kois doesn’t mention it, but we also can’t discount the power of nostalgia.
Mark and I found ourselves this New Year counting down the top moments of a significant year for us. There is something very cathartic about organizing your experiences into a manageable list that highlights every addition – giving each item the attention and honor your heart feels it deserves. It is calming, almost.

Ultimately, maybe this is why we create Top Ten lists.
It makes life manageable yet meaningful. It gives each detail of our lives purpose. We look back on the year with pride.

With this powerful desire to list and rank our experiences, we fatefully meet this week’s Torah portion, Vayekhi.
Jacob is on his deathbed. He gathers his children to provide testament of what will come of them and their families. He musters the ability to present it in a perfectly crafted poem, a poem that is essentially…a list. Son by son, Jacob draws out a brief truth of the man’s nature and what it will mean for the future. Each tribe is reduced to one essential characteristic that defines their whole nature. Ruben is strong but egotistical, Benjamin is aggressive, Judah is calm and kingly. This presentation makes them seem disconnected and at odds. Yet, as the Plaut commentary finds, the one thing that binds them is the sense of common ancestry and the memory of an old covenant with each other and with their father’s God.

Otherwise put: the brothers are individuals, but they are glued together by a higher purpose and deep, Jewish values.

And here is where we find our year-end Top Ten lists not looking so much like Jacob’s final farewell. The uniting element in Top Ten lists is nostalgia, not deep values.

Now, nostalgic thoughts are very powerful. They create longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.
They are bittersweet, filled with love and loss at the same time. Interestingly, the word nostalgia comes from the greek word nostos, which means “a return home.”

Ah, returning home.
Just saying it evokes feeling of warmth, security, cookies baking in the oven, family rosy cheeked laughing together after prolonged absence. A Norman Rockwell painting of yesteryear. That’s returning home.

Except when its not.
Returning home can be less heartwarming. When college kids come home, they love it for a day until they complain they’re bored and all their freedom is gone. People return home from vacations to real life and real situations. There may be anxiety in that return. Others return home from the hospital and worry about what will happen without round-the-clock care. Returning home can be lonely or scary. Nostalgia can’t be trusted because it is romanticized and not always accurate.

We see this too in the parshah.
After Jacob dies, the brothers go together to bury him in Canaan. When they return home, reality sets in. With their father gone, they ask one another, “will Joseph begin to hate us again? Will he remember all the bad things we did to him (y’know, like throwing him into a pit and selling him into slavery) and seek retaliation?”

Jacob’s presence is a security blanket.
While dad’s alive, the family plays nice. But when he’s gone, what is bonding them? It is going to have to be something deeper than “do it for dad.” Nostalgia, an idealized, perhaps fictional memory of their childhood together isn’t going to be good enough.

Their bond, our bonds with our own families need to be rooted in common values and honest sharing.
We have to share in experiences that we don’t glamorize. We have to accept that not all our encounters are positive, that we’ve lived through more than just “the good ol’ days.” Even painful memories of the past are essential because they motivate and propel us into our future together. While it feels good to countdown the greatest hits, we really need to look deeper for the glue that is binding us.

So, with that being said, I am going to present a top five list for our community – the Top Five Things Reform Jews Should Care About in 2012.
This is a list that doesn’t look back, but looks forward. It reflects on the deeper values that motivate us as modern Jews. As Dan Kois said, creating a list like this is a sort of performance, acting out the type of people, the type of Jews we should be. We’re not going to rely on nostalgia. We should go into 2012 with an honest look at our world and ourselves.

So, here it is, the Top 5 Things Jews Should Care About in 2012

1) Baby Boomers.
The largest segment of our population is growing older and dealing with myriad stresses. Grown adults are now caring for their aging parents while still caring for their own children. The economy doesn’t help this. Or much of anything. But despite all this, baby boomers are smart, capable, and deeply committed individuals. We must learn how to nourish your souls, not just your children or your parents, because you too are seeking meaning and comfort.

This leads us to the next item on the list:

2) Jewish learning and connecting. Our world is exploding with new learning opportunities, most of these assisted by the internet.
We need to optimize the internet and technology - not just to say how hip we are but, rather, to connect the silos of human experience and share our knowledge. It is making it easy for us, let’s get on board.

3) Civil and Human Rights.
This ranges from caring about the recent bias attacks in Queens where four firebombs were aimed at minority, mostly Muslim, institutions. This also means fighting against the slow stripping away of women’s rights here and abroad. We thought we left bigotry and gender bias in decades past. We must stay diligent in eradicating them in the future.

Related to this is:

4) Israel.
I’m going to talk more about that later.

And finally,

The Reform Movement. Many of us attended the URJ Biennial in December and came home with the observation that this generation of Reform Jews is thriving and motivated. We’re going to see the Movement change significantly with the leadership change (Rick Jacobs is coming on as the new President) but this new movement wants our input and is asking each individual here to become a co-producer of the Jewish future. How exciting!

There you have it, a very incomplete list of what’s on my mind going into 2012. This list is not meant to be definitive.
Actually, I want you to disagree with me, I want you to add your own things to it. I really mean this; so these six months, I’m writing a blog where I’ll be posting my divrei torah and asking you to provide feedback. Go on, read up, and post a comment.

Whatever you add to this list, let’s make sure that this list is connected by one thing: the very Jewish refusal to let things remain as is.
Our faith prophetically demands that our world meet our high expectations. Nostalgia has its place, but we are not meant to live within it. We Jews are meant to be realistic about our past and motivated for the future.

Kein Yhi Ratzon – may we build a future worth being proud of.

Closing prayer:

We just sang the words of Makom Shelibi Oheyv – the place where my heart holds dear, my feet will bring me near.
It is quite possibly a nostalgic song of homecoming. But this song is not meant to be about a simple return home. It is mean to be a return home with purpose, a march rather than a stroll towards a world that meets our idealistic expectations.

Let’s not take it lightly that this is Woodlands’ community mantra.
Yes, this is a place of comfort, warmth and love, but it is also a place of action and vision. May we look realistically to the future and return home, to a more beautiful world, together.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Try a Little Tenderness

originally delivered November 4, 2011

Walking around Memphis, you hear songs in the background of restaurants and tourist shops. You can’t help it, but they seep into your head. So one bus ride I decided to download a song I had heard only a piece of: “Try a Little Tenderness” – specifically Otis Redding’s rendition. It starts slow; a soulful ballad of love. But as the tempo picks up, the seduction continues, ending with a frenzied, incomprehensible jumble of words belting out of Otis’ belly. The recording is mesmerizing. So mesmerizing, I listened to it four times in a row.

I didn’t know I loved soul music until the Steve's H.O.P.E Civil Rights Journey to the south. But my newfound love of the art is not only a result of exposure. It is the message quilted into the music; the fact that it is called “soul” music.

The museum where Stax records once was pays homage to soul music. It takes you on a journey of its birth in the 1950’s and 60’s. The tour begins by walking into an authentic, wooden chapel straight out of the Mississippi delta area. These wooden, one room chapels were the settings for the preaching and the gospel music that would inspire soul. The pews were hand-hewn by the congregants, you could see their dedication splintered into the wood. The message of this tiny room rang loud and clear: soul music is forged from the desire to take the deepest faith and the deepest spirituality of the human soul and let it breathe here on earth.

This is a desire that every human has, regardless of race or background, and it took hold of America during the Civil Rights Movement. The rock ‘n roll music we learned about carried this message. A plaque at Stax put it this way: “soul music evokes the bridge of mutually-shared experiences between blacks and whites.” That is the shared experiences of poverty, of love, of being chained down, of rising up to proclaim freedom, of knowing that every human is full of worth and deserving of basic, equal rights.

This is why a group of Jewish teenagers went to Memphis and Little Rock. Judaism is an epic narrative of struggle. It is also an eternal endeavor to witness the Divine here on earth. But we don’t wait for miracles. The Divine manifests when we, with our own hands, build bridges of shared faith and when our voices blend in harmony. We do this through understanding, through seeing where our histories collide and where they diverge. We did not sugarcoat Jewish involvement in Civil Rights, nor did we ignore it. Our teens learned that by finding that empathy – that common history and that common desire to do well by others - they could and should be partners in building a better future.

Dr. Scott Morris of the Church Health Center put it this way: “if your heart is like my heart, then give me your hand.” By bearing witness to another’s struggle and identifying it with your own, you’ve forged a bond of brotherhood.

You’ve gotta try a little tenderness. Otis may have been singing about a girl, but the sentiment ran much deeper. There is a tender part in each of our souls that responds to the needs of others. Our Jewish fa

ith, like soul music, is the

vehicle for tapping that compassion, seizing it, never leaving it. We felt it back then and we still fight for it now. Now each teen knows their place in the struggle. By hearing their words, perhaps you’ll find yours.