Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

In the Neighborhood - Yom Kippur Morning 5779/2018

I was really excited to watch the latest documentary on Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. It’s amazing how just the mention of Fred Rogers elicits warmth and wonder. I think it’s linked to the core value of the program: tolerance. Tolerating people and tolerating feelings. Seems simple enough to us today, but it was actually pretty radical back then.

In fact, if you go back and look at the first episodes of the series, it might amaze you at how modern and perhaps controversial, they are. They center around King Friday the 13th’s disgust at changes being made in the fictional, puppet-ruled “Land of Make Believe.” Change makes him very uneasy. As a corrective measure, he sets up a border guard, institutes oppressive new laws and declares war on change. Only after a peaceful protest of floating balloon messages transcend the wall – each one declaring love, tenderness and acceptance – does King Friday end the war. He discovers that change is scary but it’s ok if you have partners in navigating it. He realizes that neighborhoods may change but you and your neighbors are in it together.

The language of partnership and collaboration was embedded deeply in the show’s message. The title of the program, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and it’s famous tagline – won’t you be my neighbor? - highlighted this. Fred Rogers explained that: “Well, I suppose it’s an invitation: “Won’t you be my neighbor.” It’s an invitation for somebody to be close to you.”

We understand “neighbors” and “neighborhood” to be kind terms. A neighbor loans you their cooler, feeds your fish when you go on vacation. A neighborhood consists of the streets you know, the place where your children can wander; people living closely with the common goal of one another’s welfare. A neighborhood, ideally, is an extension of home.

Yet the concept of a neighborhood gets complicated when used colloquially. When applied to countries, for example, we talk about parts of the world being neighborhoods – but they manifest quite differently from what I just described, don’t they? Countries have borders and prejudices. They exist precisely because they are unlike their neighbors. They don’t trust one another and respond harshly to perceived physical and cultural encroachments, much like King Friday the 13th.

This is felt most potently in the neighborhood of the Middle East. Yossi Klein HaLevi, an American Israeli author, just released a tremendous book called Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.Looking out his porch to the hill across from his, he addresses an imagined Palestinian person who lives there:

“Dear Neighbor…I call you neighbor because I don’t know your name or anything personal about you. Given our circumstances, “neighbor” may be too casual a word to describe our relationship. We are intruders in each other’s dreams, violators of each other’s sense of home. We are living incarnations of each other’s worst historical nightmares. Neighbors? But I don’t know how else to address you.”[1]

If Mr. Rogers expressed that he was home by putting on a cozy sweater and changing into house shoes, when it comes to talking about Israel and her neighbors, it feels more like we’re putting on a bulletproof vest.

Yes…I’m going to be talking about Israel this morning. And I know the minute I said Israel, you could have had one of 100 different feelings. Or maybe you had all 100 of those feelings at once. Multiply that by the 1000 people in this tent, and we have an untenable heap of emotions on this subject.

So before I begin, I’d like us all to take a tip from Mr. Rogers. Let’s slowly open the door. I invite you to take off your cap, coats and shoes, slip into a sweater and some cozy slippers. Come join me in the living room. Let’s have a conversation – as neighbors. I’m going to share some of my feelings and I’m not going to judge you for yours. What you will get from me this morning is an exploration of my own feelings as someone who is deeply connected to the people and Land of Israel. You’ll hear what I’m struggling with as a Zionist. My hope is that my own wrestling will help you unpacks yours. Or it won’t. And that, in and of itself, will help you to understand where you stand.

Trust me, I did not want to preach on the most controversial topic one could choose. But I’ve spoken to too many of you about your own feelings. We have to have this conversation, as a Woodlands community and as Jews. And Mr. Rogers teaches us: it’s ok to have feelings and it’s ok to talk about them.

For American Jews, Israel can feel like Mr. Rogers’ “Land of Make Believe.” Simply put, Israel is a miracle. It has flourished into something not even Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism could imagine – a modern-day Jewish fairy tale. But it also feels far away, topsy-turvy and less than real.

Dov Waxman, a Mid-east scholar, offers this framework: “Israel is an ‘imaginary homeland’for American Jews – ‘imaginary’ not just because it is not their actual home, but also because it exists primarily in their imagination…For most American Jews, Israel has been more of amythic land than an actual place. It functions, therefore, as a kind of screen on which American Jews may project their hopes, fantasies,and fears.”[2]

We’ve heaped so many dreams onto Israel that it’s no wonder that we fall into extreme camps when talking about it.

But how can we not feel strongly about what happens in Israel?! It’s not just a modern country but the place where the whole of Jewish experience is being re-written!

When I lived there, I relished the fact that on Hanukkah all the balconies were adorned with menorahs. I loved that on Purim I found myself in the middle of a drag show at Jerusalem’s hottest gay bar. My conversation with my taxi driver seamlessly wove into my Bible class because the language of Hebrew linked them together.

Israel is the place where the line between spiritual fulfillment and the banality of everyday life vanishes.

I think Yossi Klein Halevi illustrates it best: “One morning I was driving my teenage son, Shachar, to school. Not far from the Old City, we got caught in a traffic jam. I said, “You know, in one sense here we are, sitting in a traffic jam, just like in any city anywhere. But sometimes it occurs to me that the most boring details of our daily life were the greatest dreams of our ancestors.”[3]

Scholar Jack Wertheimer explains further: “Ever since Israel’s founding, American Jews have contended with the freighted symbolism and complex realities of the Jewish state. How could it be otherwise? After living for nearly two millennia as a minority, scattered across much of the globe and dependent upon the tolerance of host countries, Jews around the world have been confronted since 1948 with a radically novel situation: A Jewish state in the land of their ancestors, with a Jewish majority exercising sovereignty and considerable military might, not only conducting its life according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and in the revived Hebrew language, but also defining itself as the homeland of every Jew and as the defender of Jews around the world.”[4]

The Jewish State is a dream-come-true: a technological wunderkind, a cultural center, a place where Jewish history awakens in each Jerusalem cobblestone and where Jews do not have to fight for the right to be Jewish. In Israel, we can be “un-remarkably” Jewish.

But at the same time, modern Israel is far from the manifestation of our Jewish hopes and dreams. Just look to an untenable situation in the West Bank and Gaza…a right-wing religious take-over of Jewish affairs…an unnecessary Nation-State Bill that alienated Israel’s minorities over the summer.

There’s unresolved conflict at every border – far from the neighborhood ideal. Take for example The Iron Dome – the air defense system that guards the country. It has provided immeasurable safety to the people living there, but what does it mean that such a technology needs to exist? Since 2011, it has intercepted over 1000 enemy rockets.

Yes, the Israeli people deserve safety, but think of the cycle of violence that has led to such a situation.

David Grossman, an Israeli author, recently delivered these words on Israel’s memorial day: “Home is a place whose walls – borders – are clear and accepted; who existence is stable, solid, and relaxed; who inhabitants know its intimate codes; whose relations with its neighbors have been settled. It projects a sense of future…and we Israelis, even after 70 years…are not yet there. We are not yet home. Israel was established so that the Jewish people, who have nearly never felt at-home-in-the-world, would finally have a home. And now, 70 years later, strong Israel may be a fortress, but it is not yet a home.”[5]

If the sense of home is complicated for Israelis, it’s even more of a quagmire for American Jews. We were taught, or we believe, that Israel is a magical place where Jewish suffering ends, where morality reigns, and holiness effortlessly infuses the benign. A lot of the time that is true.

And a lot of the time, it’s not.

I know that many of you have trouble talking to your children and grandchildren about Israel. Young people today are reminding us that we raised them to be socially conscious individuals with a strong moral compass. According to them, it is precisely that moral compass that makes it difficult for them to support Israel. And we just don’t know what to say.

What are we to say when we are out with our friends and they say to us, “how can you support Israel when you see what it’s doing to the Palestinians and other minorities?” I know many of you have been asked this question.

My initial answer, albeit fraught, tends to be simple: I can disagree with the current government’s policies and I can maintain faith in Israel’s promise. I believe in the dream and maintain my hope.

I understand that Israel is inextricably linked to the Jewish past, present and future yet now wrestles with wielding something Jews have never had before: power. It’s not an excuse for Israel’s actions, but rather a demanding new reality.

Many organizations make claim on American Jewry’s voice on Israel: AIPAC, JSTREET, the New Israel Fund. Add to the mix the even more controversial Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now. Each believes it is promoting a moral voice in our uniquely Jewish space.

I’m not going to tell you who to support. Yet I will offer two things to consider when evaluating an organization’s stance on Israel.

First, do they listen to multiple narratives; can they hear many voices in a rancorous room? You may side with one voice more than the other, but when you completely silence one narrative, you lose sight of the full picture.

Secondly, is there love in their message? Not infatuation, not fanaticism, but love - the real kind. The kind where you commit to helping your partner grow. The kind where you know you are bound together by history and understanding; because you are bound by a familial pledge to raise one another up in holiness.

It is because of this love that I am deeply hurt when I watch particular organizations and news-media slowly erase the centuries-old Jewish struggle for autonomy. I see the blind-spots in their reporting, the inability to admit any good that Israel pursues or the centuries of anti-Semitism that we Jews have faced and continue to experience.

And with that same fire in my belly, I cannot support moral laxity in the one place where we should be living our moral utopia. When the Chief Rabbinate of Israel won’t let my Reform colleagues officiate weddings and Palestinian homes are being demolished, I will speak up. I will speak up because I believe that many of these internal issues impact the safety of the country – either in the way it’s viewed on the world-stage or how it functions for Israel’s citizens and her neighbors.

As American Jews, we exist in a meaningful in-between space. Worldwide Jewry consists of about 14.5 million people. Of that, about half of Jews live in Israel and half live in the US. We may be far away, but we are half a whole.

I can’t cast a vote for Israel’s leaders, but I can cast a vote for the moral conscience of a Jewish state.

I can also speak up to the American government, reminding our nation’s leaders: don’t forget about my people and our cause.

Now, you may argue it is not my place to weigh in on internal issues of the Israeli state. But consider the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. In a very Jewish response to a global crisis, overtime, Israel has accepted tens of thousands of refugees from Africa. In November 2017, Netanyahu’s government announced it would force these approximately 38,000 refugees to leave Israel or face indefinite jail time. Jews around the world organized and insisted that Israel as a Jewish state fulfill its responsibility toward those fleeing torture, slavery, and war. Bowing to this pressure, on April 24, 2018, Netanyahu backed down.[6 Our voice mattered.

So then what is Zionism for a Jew like me – one who appreciates, respects, and is at times disappointed by the modern state? Simply put: my Zionism is a love for the Jewish homeland and a belief in its moral imperative.

Back in April, a few of us from Woodlands joined the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City. We marched with ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America. The groups around us were Orthodox day schools, Zionist youth groups, and, on a whole, more traditional congregations. The ARZA delegation wore a shirt that drew a lot of attention for how small a contingent we were: “This is What a Zionist Looks Like.”

I thought it was clever. I was also tentative. The word “Zionist” has become so corrupted, to emblazon it on my body felt bolder than I wanted to be. Who knew what version of the word someone would assume? Just being at the parade was a statement I wasn’t sure I wanted to be making. My relationship to Israel is so multi-vocal that I hesitated to be linked with an event that seemed to be so monolithically messaged.

But that was exactly the point of being there, wasn’t it? So I put on the shirt. I wanted to say, Zionism includes me – all my loving, all my wrestling, all my nuance. I want to be a people free in our land. Not to the exclusion of other people, but also not to the omission of my people and our story. Israel is a dream, a dream only partially fulfilled.

I hate to break it to you: there’s no magical ending here. Maybe you’ve felt heard or maybe you are completely incensed. Those 100 emotions you may have felt are still there.

But here’s the thing about feelings. They can be expressed, understood, and ultimately transformative. Wrestling with them leads to our growth – individually and as a people.

Is it uncomfortable to talk about Israel? Sure. But it’s worth our effort. And if we think of it in terms of neighborliness, perhaps we’ll actually get somewhere.

After the September 11th attacks, Fred Rogers offered this public service announcement which feels apt when considering what we see and hear about Israel today:

“If you grew up with our Neighborhood, you may remember how we sometimes talked about difficult things. There were days ... even beautiful days ... that weren't happy. In fact, there were some that were really sad.Well, we've had a lot of days like that in our world. We've seen what some people do when they don't know anything else to do with their anger…[there is a way] to express…feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods."

I’d like to see healing in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of the Mideast.

It’s not going to be as easy as peace balloons being sent over a wall. It will take much listening, much sharing, more invitations to be close to one another.

So then one more Fred Rogers piece of wisdom that sounds a lot like Herzl: “What makes the difference between wishing and realizing our wishes? Lots of things, and it may take months or years for a wish to come true, but it’s far more likely to happen when you care so much about a wish that you’ll do all you can to make it happen.”

In other words: if you will it, it is no dream.

I’ll close with a prayer that I’ve plucked from the Jewish wedding ceremony, one that feels appropriate today: “Blessed are you, Eternal God, who created joy and gladness, peace and companionship. Eternal God, may there soon be heard in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness. Partnered together, may we go out from this blessed canopy with hope. May we one day hear in the Land of Israel the voices ofyoung people singing together. Blessed are you, Eternal God, who brings joy to the hearts of those who learn to love their neighbor.” Amen.


Yehuda Amichai is one of Israel’s great poets. In the poem I am about to read you, he finds himself wandering the streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. He stops in front of an Arab man’s shop which beckons to him like the open ark. It awakens a fraught Jewish past and a radically different present:


On Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting, I put on
my dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City of Jerusalem.
For a long time I stood in front of an Arab’s hole-in-the-wall shop,
not far from the Damascus Gate, a shop with
buttons and zippers and spools of thread
in every color and snaps and buckles.
A rare light and many colors, like an open Ark.

I told him in my heart that my father too
had a shop like this, with thread and buttons.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
and the causes and the events, why I am now here
and my father’s shop was burned there and he is buried here.

When I finished, it was time for the Neilah prayer.
He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate
and I returned, with all the worshippers, home.

As we stand before the open ark today, we too will consider our past, present and future. Israel’s past and present are difficult. Perhaps with more moments of standing before our neighbors, and then speaking with them, the future can be brighter.

[1]Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, 1.

[2]"Trouble in the Tribe" (2014)

[3]Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, 28.

[4]“American Jews and Israel: A 60-Year Retrospective” (2008)


[6]Information and language taken from T’ruah’s website:

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Whites of Their Eyes

It’s June 1775 and Boston is under siege. It’s the beginning of what would be the American Revolutionary War. The leaders of the colonial forces learn that the British are planning to send troops out from the city to fortify the unoccupied hills that surround it. This would give the British control of Boston Harbor. In response, 1,200 colonial troops under the command of William Prescott stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill. Still haughty with their sense of might, the British perused the colonists, resulting in the famous battle of Bunker Hill. And while the British would prevail, it was a sobering experience for them. The Americans were stronger and more determined than they thought. The road to subduing the rebellion would be long, and ultimately unsuccessful.

William Prescott would become famous for uttering a tactile warning: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Was the order to preserve gunpowder? To get a better shot? Whatever the reason, Prescott may not have been the first one to say it. Turns out the American Revolution likely wasn’t the first time it was uttered.

The origin of the phrase is disputed, yet popular – being assigned to many rulers and wars throughout history. One could look at it as a military tactic that ensures accuracy. Or you could see it as symbolic of the warrior’s resolve and commitment to reaching his target, his willingness “to go the extra mile,” so to speak.

As someone who has not witnessed war first-hand, nor had to look into the whites of the eyes of an aggressor, I wonder what this strategy has meant for soldiers through the ages. Say you reach your target, and then, while gazing into their eyes…watch the life slip out of them. What sense do you make for yourself of what you’ve just done? Sure, seeing the whites of their eyes got you your target effectively, but it also brought you face to face with the reality of your fatal actions.

Some never make sense of this. We’ve only begun to understand the depth of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and the other psychological effects of war.

On the other hand, what if seeing into your enemy’s eyes is a necessary step in helping to contextualize the morally complex minefield of taking another person’s life? What if it’s part of the thing we call war and helps one to understand the gravity of their actions? What if it’s part of justifying it?

The New York Times Magazine recently published a piece called “The Wounds of the Drone Warrior,” where journalist Eyal Press investigated the psychological life of the military technicians who operate drone aircraft. For example, one such person, Christopher Aaron, is described this way: “[he] sat before a wall of flat-screen monitors that beamed live, classified video feeds from drones hovering in distant war zones. On some days, Aaron discovered, little of interest appeared on the screens, either because a blanket of clouds obscured visibility or because what was visible — goats grazing on an Afghan hillside, for instance — was mundane, even serene. Other times, what unspooled before Aaron’s eyes was jarringly intimate: coffins being carried through the streets after drone strikes; a man squatting in a field to defecate after a meal (the excrement generated a heat signature that glowed on infrared); an imam speaking to a group of 15 young boys in the courtyard of his madrasa…The first few times he saw a Predator drone unleash its lethal payload — the camera zooming in, the laser locking on, a plume of smoke rising above the scorched terrain where the missile struck — he found it surreal...But he also found it awe-inspiring. Often, he experienced a surge of adrenaline, as analysts in the room exchanged high-fives.”

Drone warfare is the next frontier. It’s intriguing. This modern technology has made it possible for less American dollars and lives to be spent on foreign operations. It allows us to be more calculated and specific about our targets. It stops more bloodshed.

Yet Press cautions against this assumption: “Among ordinary citizens, drones seem to have had a narcotizing effect, deadening the impulse to reflect on the harm they cause. Then again, the public rarely sees or hears about this harm. The sanitized language that public officials have used to describe drone strikes (“pinpoint,” “surgical”) has played into the perception that drones have turned warfare into a costless and bloodless exercise. Instead of risking more casualties, drones have fostered the alluring prospect that terrorism can be eliminated with the push of a button, a function performed by “joystick warriors” engaged in an activity as carefree and impersonal as a video game.”

He's right. War is not a fantasy world on the internet. A real person commands the missile. A real person dies. The biggest change now is the distance between the enemies. The people who feel this jarring difference the most are the military operatives who struggle to incorporate the massive moral dilemnas of war into their everyday lives. Jeff Bright, a retired pilot, describes the “bewildering nature of the transition: “I’d literally just walked out on dropping bombs on the enemy, and 20 minutes later I’d get a text — can you pick up some milk on your way home?”

There’s no getting to know the people or environment where the violence is occurring. There are less moments for compassion or new information. We might have more intel, but we have less emotional understanding.

Judaism has much to say about war, from the Biblical injunctions to today’s commentators. Torah outlaws murder yet commands a military conquest. Over centuries, the rabbis have tried to reconcile these conflicting messages – calling human life sacred while also taking it, or saying that one can preserve one life by taking another. They rank the types of war, stressing that war of defense is the most just. Yet proactive war is permitted, especially against sworn enemies of the Jews. We aren’t a pacifist religion.

That said, all the ranking and discussing and debating is to say that we Jews recognize how it incongruent war is with our moral code, yet at the same time that it is a reality of the human experience and can be done in a just way.

So perhaps we are starting to understand “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” differently. More often than not, soldiers who board the planes and fight in the trenches see the turmoil and misery that they are there to heal. They see the eyes of the people they save, and yes, the people they kill. They live in that other world – the shadow world of war. They don’t return at night to regular life because what they are living should never be given the honor of being called real life. Those who serve in the military are heroes – not because they kill, but because they go an stand in that moral no-mans land for you and me, believing deep in their hearts that they are working on the side of justice.

I’m not calling for an end to drone combat. I see its advantages. But let us not have this new technology delude us into thinking that there is a completely moral way to wage war. The battle wounds will manifest – if not physically than psychologically. The hurt must out. We must, in every act of violence, draw ourselves close enough to see, feel, intuit the whites of the eyes of our enemy and see the life slip from it. We may still be called to combat tomorrow, but perhaps the days of war will lessen as we grasp onto our remaining humanity.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

No Regrets - Shavuot Yizkor

What does it mean to live life with no regrets?

Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol lived in the area of Ukraine for most of the 18thcentury. He was a well-know tzaddik and part of the great Maggid of Mezeritch’sinner circle. He’s known for his particularly progressive take on life.

For example, A man once visited the holy Maggid of Mezeritch and said he had great difficulties applying the Talmudic principle that "A person is supposed to bless God for the bad just as one blesses God for the good.” The Maggid told him to find the Reb Zusya ask him. The man went and found Rabbi Zusya, who received him fondly and invited him to his home. When the guest came in, he saw how poor the family was: there was almost nothing to eat, they were all beset with afflictions and illnesses. Nevertheless Rabbi Zusya and his family were happy and cheerful. The guest was astonished. He said: "I’m here because the Holy Maggid said you could show me how is it possible to bless God for the bad in the same way we bless God for the good." Rabbi Zusya said: "This is indeed a very interesting question. But why did our holy Rebbe send you to me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering."

Indeed, there are lots of stories of Reb Zusya’s optimism. Yet there was one moment in his life where is positivity was broken.

When Rabbi Zusya was on his deathbed, his students found him in uncontrollable tears. They tried to comfort him by telling him that he was nearly as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham, so he was sure to be judged positively in Heaven. He replied, "When I get to Heaven, I will not be asked “Why weren't you like Moses,” or “Why weren't you like Abraham.” God will ask, “Why weren't you like Zusya?"

This story is well-known and often quoted because it teaches us to live up to our own potential. But I don’t think it preaches self-enlightenment as much as it teaches us self-actualization. By that, I mean it’s not that we need to become consumed with finding out who we truly are on the inside – but that we need to live our lives in a way that is in service to others. Sure, our days should be filled with self-satisfaction. In our modern society, the language we use for this is living life with no regrets. We often take that to mean checking off boxes on our recreational bucket lists and accepting failures and moving on from them. But the Jewish take on “no regrets” is different.

According to our tradition, a life well-lived has more to do with figuring out how to make our days count in the grand scheme of the universe.

Because let’s be honest, just like Zusya, our tradition is wracked with guilt. We regret the calamities that befell our people due to our own sins. We regret the missed opportunities we should have taken – the Torah we never learned or the restorative acts we stood on the sidelines for.

“No regrets,” in a Jewish context, would mean that we fill our days with soulful acts – events large and small – that draw humanity closer to olam haba– the fulfilment of God’s dream for us – that we will live as peaceful guardians of God’s creation.

My grandmother died one week ago on Mother’s Day, just 4 days before her 92ndbirthday. Before you’re horrified by that fact, you must know that it was somy grandmother to die on Mother’s Day. None of us are sad about it. In fact, we’re delighted, because it embodies who she was: the matriarch of our family - revered, dignified, demanding, loving, and absolutely NOT a shrinking violet who wouldn’t concede her death to any other day but the one already set aside to honor women like her.

I had the blessing of sitting with her for three days while she was in hospice in Florida, experiencing some profound moments along the way. On Monday, she could hold a short conversation, on Tuesday she could respond with smiles and nods, on Wednesday, just a recognizing glance. 

Shortly after I arrived by her side, she mentioned how she was ready for death. She was ready to flow out, she told me. How could she be so sure of this?I wondered. “I have no regrets” she told me, over and over. 

Indeed, hers was a blessed life. But I don’t think she was thinking about that as much as she recognized the fullness of her days and the blessings that she birthed into this world. 

As her frail body thinned and faded, I believe she recognized the robust beauty of what she was leaving behind. Her muscles were no longer needed by this world, and even though they fought for another few days, they eventually conceded and went to sleep, letting the bodies of those she mentored and loved take up the weight of life’s purpose.

Psalm 90 encourages us: Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. When we take an account of our lives, no regrets will mean that we saw value in every moment, no matter how banal or exciting.

Shavuot highlights the importance of this “numbering our days.” Like a real pal, Rabbi Billy officiated my grandmother’s funeral on Thursday. He reminded us that after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites did not spend their days plotting revenge or racking up as many hedonistic pleasures as they could find. Instead, they walked 49 uncertain, treacherous days to the base of Mt Sinai where they (in his words) “dedicated themselves to creating a society that would never permit one human being to diminish the worth of any other. At a place called Sinai, they produced a document – the Torah – that would shape the values and hopes of countless generations to come.”

By counting the Omer and then celebrating Shavuot, we celebrate those days in which our ancestors became wise in heart. We number each day so that we may be reminded that every step we take matters in the great scheme of the universe. Our job is to lift our eyes to the mountains, to maintain the optimism that Rabbi Zusya epitomized in his youth, and hopefully like Faith Zimmerman, in our ripe old age, regard death not as a fire extinguished, but a torch passing.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Other Half Shekel

Did you see the story recently about Rob Leibowitz, the 60-year-old single father of 5, whose kidneys were failing?  After enduring dialysis treatments that were four hours each, three days a week, and learning that he was on an organ transplant waitlist that was 7 to 10 years long, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

You see, his search for a donor was complicated by his blood type, O Positive, which makes him a universal kidney donor, but only able to receive a kidney from a person with the O blood type. His children could not donate to him for medical reasons. It looked like he might not get a kidney in time.

So he had a t-shirt made – simple white with black lettering that read: “In Need Of Kidney - O Positive - Call” and it listed a phone number. Then he took his shirt and his kids to Disney world.

As they walked around the park, people snapped pictures of the shirt. They shared them on Facebook. The post went viral. Soon after, at least 100 phone calls came in – 50 with serious offers.

According to the Washington Post: “Donating a kidney requires a long screening process, including extensive medical tests and a psychological evaluation…After initial testing, three potential donors went to New York for additional testing, which included meetings with psychiatrists, social workers and a surgeon. Then there were blood tests, X-rays and tissue tests. None of the three were a match.”

Then he heard from Richie Sully, another single dad, who took at 16hr bus ride to New York for testing. Every hour was worth it, because they were a match.

The surgery was completed on Jan 18. I saw the two men post-op on the Today Show. They’re now best friends. When asked why he did it, Richie Sully said, “Because I could.”

Who or what do you think of when I ask you to think of your “other half?” A spouse, a dog, a friend, a sibling? So often we limit our “other half” to something romantic – but the concept of the invisible missing piece of you can be even more transformative than that.

It’s Shabbat Shekalim, a special Shabbat in the Hebrew calendar. The day reminds us of a specific mitzvah that was required of the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert – each person had to donate half a shekel to the upkeep of the desert tabernacle.

The half shekel was mandated as part of the census – meaning it would do two things: account for a person in the general population, and it would sustain the portable sanctuary until it came to its permanent residence in Jerusalem.

But why count the half-shekels and not the people themselves if a census was what we were really after?

The Torah says that the half-shekel was to “atone” for each person, that is, some interpret, for the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf. The Israelites atoned for their descent into idolatry by building up God’s sanctuary. Instead of giving their gold for an idol, they handed over their precious metal toward a positive, selfless, communal endeavor and to a God that, most importantly, they could not see.

It’s as if the Torah is telling us that a person doesn’t count until they contribute something constructive to the community. Being a body in a crowd isn’t enough. That body must give something – physically, financially – to a communal, holy endeavor.

But why only half a shekel? One, to keep it fair. Everyone from the poor to the rich was expected to participate and it was important to stress that each person was worth the same amount.

And then there’s a more symbolic explanation. Half a shekel implies tha…there is another half somewhere. An invisible half. A Godly half of the human shekel.

Which makes me think about value and the things we’re willing to pay for these days.

The internet has opened us up to the incredible value of sharing. Think of how often you offer to “share” something – either a picture on Facebook or a file on dropbox. Nowadays, we transmit knowledge widely and without cost. What an incredible re-introduction of such a compassionate social gesture – sharing!

But what’s come with this great invention is an antipathy toward paying for things. For example, most synagogues around the country collect dues. Same with many gyms, professional associations and other “member-driven” organizations. Post-2008, Americans, on a whole, have been understandably more anxious about their disposable income. We pay for things that we deem necessary to our everyday lives, things that we pay for and then immediately use.

So what about something we might not use every day? Why still contribute for its upkeep and not just for the service we draw from it?

The answer begins with the other-half a shekel. It’s the holy value we don’t readily see in some of the places where we spend our shekels – synagogue being one of them.

For example, the other day I was on my way to write this very drash at my top-secret sermon-writing location. Don’t ask where, it’s top secret!

I was driving through my neighborhood, thinking through my half-baked ideas on this subject. As I came to a small intersection, I saw a cab dropping off an older woman at a home. She started to scale a steep, icy driveway. She was not very steady on her feet. Almost without thinking, I pulled over, put on my flashers, got out and offered to help her up the driveway. She put her hand out. Holding hands, I guided her to the steps then up to the door. “Thank you, baby!” she offered. I told her to have a good day and headed back to my car.

I’m not telling you this story to make you think I’m a good person. Sometimes I question just how good I am. Instead, I tell you this story to illustrate the invisible other-half of the shekel. Because I was writing this sermon, because my identity as a Jew and as a rabbi was fresh in my mind, because I was psychically connected to this very special community of people, I was moved to righteous action in that moment.

We don’t always think of the long-term, indescribable, invisible benefit we derive from our connection to a particular community. But my connection to you all pushes for me, demands for me to be a better person. You make me seek out my other half a shekel and I find it in you and in what I understand to be God. That’s a value that you don’t reap the immediate rewards from, but should be counted nonetheless.

Hm, when you look at it this way, it turns out to be a pretty good deal: a whole shekel for the price of a half. Not bad.

Shabbat Shalom!

“It’s exciting when you find parts of yourself in someone else.”
The internet attributes this quote to someone named Annaka Silvia.
The internet offers no other insight into who this person is.

Isn’t it fitting that the source of this inspirational quote – so perfect for our theme tonight – is invisible. Does the author even exist?

God of our ancestors, unseen creator of connections and righteous action, may we never stop searching for our other half-a-shekel, that divine part of ourselves or another person or a community that holds us accountable. May we be counted among blessings, manufacturers of holiness, and keep reaching for the wholeness of shalom.