Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, December 23, 2022

Shabbat Hanukkah

We associate Hanukkah so much with miracles. Yet the word Hanukkah really means dedication. 

Of course, the name conjures the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem. The miracle of the Hanukkah story is not so much the oil lasting 8 days but the miracle of how we overcame great adversity to live to see Judaism enrich the lives of another generation. The fact that we could dedication our temple and then our children to a brighter future, that’s the miracle.

Recently went with our 10th-12th graders to Washington DC on our L’taken Seminar. The teens spend the weekend learning about major issues in our country and then they learn about the democratic advocacy process - specifically lobbying their representatives.

The trip also includes time out and about in Georgetown and Pentagon Row, for fun. We also made the decision to go to the African American History and Culture Museum, as well as the Holocaust Museum.

I’ve now been to the Holocaust Museum at least 5 times. I always underestimate the ways it will hit me. I figure I’ve got the place memorized, but I always seem to forget that seeing it through the teens’ eyes helps me to see it freshly.

This year, I stationed myself near a particular glass hallway. Etched on the walls are the names of communities that were decimated in the Holocaust.

As our teens walked by, I brought them over one to one name in particular. Rakovnik. “Do you recognize that name?” I asked them? “Yes….isn’t that where our Torah is from?” they all responded.

Indeed it is. At Woodlands, we house the Torah scroll that used to serve the people of Rakovnik.

When we debriefed the experience, one of our teens mentioned this moment of connection, remarking that it just made the whole thing very real, very tangible. This wasn’t some hypothetical town, listed among hundreds of others. This was a town with a Torah, a Torah that would have no home if we at Woodlands had not taken it in and with it, the memory of the lives that are no more.

Hanukkah seeks to do the same sort of thing - to reach back into Jewish history, in this case, ancient history - and make it very real. When we light our menorahs, we bring the memory of our ancestors into our homes. We identify with these people we never met, but who’s souls and story we seem to know intimately. 

Every night we light our menorahs, we are rededicating the temple anew. Every night, as we pick up the shamash candle and use it to light the others, we dedicate ourselves to fighting back against the forces that would have us and our traditions erased. 

Holding the shamash makes each of us a torch bearer, carrying the miraculous light of the Maccabees into today. Every night, as we light our menorahs, we dedicate ourselves to the Jewish future, to surviving even in the face of considerable danger.

You’ve probably seen this photo before. It’s from 1931, amid the Nazi's rise to power. It was taken in the northern port city of Kiel, Germany, opposite the regional Nazi headquarters.

Rachel Posner, married to Rabbi Akvia Posner, photographed their menorah in the window. In the now-historic photograph, the family's menorah is seen on the windowsill in the foreground, and outside the window is a large swastika flag hanging on the building's facade.

On the back of the photograph, Rachel wrote: “The flag says ‘death to Judaism,’ the light says ‘Judaism will live forever.'”

This Hanukkah Rachel and Akiva’s grandchildren returned to Germany from their home in Israel. 91 years after the photograph was taken, the Posner grandchildren lit the very same menorah in Berlin’s Bellevue Palace with the assistance of Germany’s president, President Steinmeier. Miraculously, Jewish life is thriving in Germany. Just like it is in the US. 

And yet, also like America, Germany saw a double digit increase in anti-semitic acts this year, mostly due to a growing far-right movement, similar to what we are seeing in the US.

Indeed, it is time to be the shammashim - the caretakers, the torchbearers.

It is time to be brave like a Maccabee…to make their story ours. Be assured, it is not some mythical fable, relegated to children’s books and holiday tchotchkes. We must call upon their resolve to not let supremacists and bigots gain the upper hand.

Because YOU, the person lighting the menorah, are the Hanukkah miracle. The sheer fact that we Jews still exist and that every year in the month of Kislev, we eat doughnuts and play dreidel and light our chanukiyot, is a miracle. In Judaism, we never let a miracle go unnoticed or unappreciated.  And above all, we always pay the miracle forward.

Al hanissim v’al hapurkan…Thank you God for these miracles I’m looking at on screen…for all the redemptions, for the mighty deeds and saving acts throughout the generations, just as our ancestors clung to your light in days of old, we cherish it now.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Lucky's "walkabout"

You may have seen and heard that two weeks ago, our dog Lucky got away from where he was supposed to be. I’m not going to get into the whole story, because the details aren’t important, but the short of it is that he was on what we now call his “walkabout” in Ardsley and northern Yonkers for six harrowing hours. He was found, he’s home, all is good.

I don’t use the term “walkabout” loosely. The walkabout, specifically, is an Australian aboringinal rite of passage in which an adolescent lives alone in the wilderness for a period of time. It is meant to spiritually aid the transition into adulthood. You could argue that “walkabouts” exist in some form throughout many cultures. Rites of passage often include a youth taking the time to wander and explore on their own, realizing their own resilience and strength during that time. When they return, their status in society changes, with the internal change being recognized by the external community.

To be clear, I don’t think Lucky experienced a spiritual change as a result of his time wandering woods, backyards and the pool at Sprain Ridge Park (that is eventually where he was found, believe it or not). But certainly the whole Young family felt the drama of his absence and the exhale and elation of his return. We also feel sobering gratitude every time we look over at his relaxed, sleeping body taking up the whole couch.

The return, in this case, was a literal one. Yet with the High Holy Days looming, the metaphor is not lost on me. 

This is the time of year when we might recognize how lost we are. It’s the season when we realize that we’re halfway to Stew Leonards when we really should be back up at Ardsley Middle School. We’re way off the path and we’ve lost the scent. Yet with some redirection (can you hear a voice calling your name?) we can get back on track.

Or rather than being “lost,” perhaps you are experiencing a “walkabout year,” in which you’re discovering your passions and path. Year two of the pandemic is most certainly categorized by shifting careers and reevaluating relationships. As we come back from isolation, we’re finding we are changed internally and we’re figuring out how to manifest those changes in how we work, love and relate to one another.

The High Holy Days are the perfect time to reflect on this. There is a true genius to the fact that the High Holy Days are an autumnal celebration. Could the rabbis have known it would so perfectly match the way our modern world works?

After a summer apart, and in a lull of Covid numbers, the High Holy Days are a homecoming from our individual walkabouts. But it is more than a re-entry. This is also the time of year when we look around and realize we are not alone in the work we are each doing internally. Sure, this season is about tefillah, teshuva and tzedakah (repentance, prayer and charity will temper the severe decree!) but it is also about kehillah - being part of a holy community.

This week’s Torah portion speaks to this. If you’ve been around services a lot, you’ll know that I’m strangely fond of the many laws the Torah contains in regard to oxen. It’s weird, I know.

Well, we get more this week. Namely…”If you see your neighbor’s ox has wandered off, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your neighbor. If the person who owns the ox does not live near you or you do not know who [the owner] is, you can bring it home and it shall remain with you until the owner claims it; at which point, you shall give it back. You shall do the same with that person’s donkey; you shall do the same with that person’s garment; and with anything that someone loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. If you see your neighbor’s ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must raise it up out of the road together.”

First of all, boy does my family relate heavily to this section. I was astounded at how many people - our friends, Woodlands members and complete strangers - went out to look for Lucky in the rain. And certainly, every time I said thank you I got a “of course! What else could I do?! That’s what neighbors are for” in response.

But there’s a different sort of connective issue here than just “be a good neighbor.” Rather than writing laws about finding lost oxen, the Torah is really writing laws about the responsibility we have to one another. It is telling us that it is not ok to feign ignorance, or to claim we don’t have the time or means to help one another out. Our moral code believes that another person’s loss should never be our gain. Think about the implications for that in how to run our businesses, how we allocate tax dollars, the laws we legislate and the policies we promote. By protecting each other’s assets and rights, not hoarding them or taking them for ourselves, we create a community rich in resources as well as goodwill. Returning things - whether it’s physical objects, money, favors or smiles - is a spiritually transformative experience.

When we reclaim or restore something that’s been lost - whether that’s a pet or a sense of purpose or the goodwill of our fellow - we cherish it even more. We act in ways that not only safeguard its falling by the roadside, but also amplify its importance in our lives. When we make a return in the form of a genuine apology, we not only repair the relationship, we transform it in a way where all parties feel seen for who they truly are.

As we barrel closer to the High Holy Days, I pray we can build the holy community the Torah dreams of. May we cherish one another’s journeys as much as our own and find the openness within our hearts to be able to feel the gratitude and transformation upon our return to God and eachother.


Monday, August 15, 2022

Tu b'Av and Yom Kippur, kindred spirits

 It is Tu b’Av! The ancient, obscure Jewish celebration of love!

Tu b’Av wasn’t such a big deal until modern times and the Tu b’Av of today is not at all like the one of ancient times. In Israel, you’ll find shiny red hearts and garland, special date night menus, flowers and gift giving. The American Valentine’s Day is much to blame, but nonetheless, why turn down an opportunity to explore and adore love when it comes to you? Hence, our modern observance of Tu b’Av.

But, what sort of “love” are we really supposed to be celebrating? And how? The first mention of this special date is in the Mishnah where Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says:

“There are no happier days for the people of Israel than Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Israel go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards.”

The dancing, in this case, was to find and lock down a mate.

But that’s not what grabs me the most in the passage. It’s this very odd pairing of Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur. Sure, there’s the natural connection of white clothing and the “purity” messaging that white clothes convey. That “purity” hits differently on Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, for sure. White is also an equalizing color. Back in the day, when dyes and trims were expensive, the more you had, the richer you were. Dressing in all white hides class and distinction, equalizing the dating scene as well as the community coming to repent.

But the Talmud seems to think the link between Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur runs deeper than that.

Tu b’Av, for obvious reasons, is a day of joy. Yet how can we describe Yom Kippur in such a way?

The Gemara asks the same questions and answers the following: “Yom Kippur is a day of joy because it has the elements of pardon and forgiveness, and moreover, it is the day on which the last pair of tablets were given.”

There’s more about love in this answer than it first appears. The rabbis’ say that God forgave the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf on Yom Kippur. This is significant, as the golden calf, an act of idolatry, is considered adultery in God’s eyes. Yet the covenantal love between God and the people was so secure that the rift was repaired.

The text solidifies this by stating “it is the day on which the last pair of tablets were given.” The tablets of course are the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments and the Torah in general are considered the ketubah, the marriage contract between God and the Jewish people. Just like Tu b’Av is a day for match making, Yom Kippur is the day in which the sacred relationship between God and the Jewish people is repaired and reaffirmed.

So when the rabbis say that Yom Kippur is a day of joy because it is a day of pardon and forgiveness, their lesson is that granting forgiveness is one of the ultimate gestures of love. Every Yom Kippur, it is like we are the young people dancing in the vineyards. We come with our defenses down. We come humbled and ready to recount the ways we let God and each other down in the last year. Yes, as much as we dole out guilt there in the vineyards, what we really distribute is forgiveness. As we do that, we regenerate the love in our relationships - yes, with God, but moreseo with each other. 

So if Tu b’Av can cast this light on Yom Kippur, let’s explore the reverse. What can Yom Kippur bring to Tu b’Av that moves it past Hallmark and romantic frills?

Well, evidently, the theme of forgiveness continues in the rabbis’ exposition of Tu b’Av’s significance. 

They posit that “the fifteenth of Av was the day on which the sin of the spies was forgiven and the deaths of the first generation of Israelites in the wilderness ceased.” The background here: when scouts are sent into the Promised Land, they come back full of doubt, essentially spurning God and rejecting God’s loving gift. As punishment, that first generation of Israelites will never get to enter the Promised Land. Only their children are granted that honor.

So Tu b’Av, according to the rabbis, was the day it started over. It was the day that optimism re-emerged, and yes, forgiveness.

In these waning hours of the holiday, it is worth asking how this Tu B’av can still be a day of pardon and forgiveness for us. Right now we’re sort of in Tu b’Av Neilah.

As the sun sets, can you muster some compassion for a loved one who disappointed you this week? Perhaps a colleague that could have supported you better? 

At the very least, please, please, use this as an opportunity to find some forgiveness for yourself. In some ways it is the hardest, because it begins with accepting a covenant with yourself - that even with your vulnerabilities, your doubts and your deficits - you are deserving of love. 

On this “happiest day” for the Jewish people, let us find love at every level - a partnership with God, partnership with each other, and, at the heart of it all, appreciation for one’s self. Welcome to the vineyard of forgiveness. Perhaps stay a while, because Elul, the time when we draw even closer to God, is just two weeks away.

Ken Yhi Ratzon.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Pack Your Timbrels, People.

If you had to flee your house and could only take one object, what would it be? It has to be an object - let’s assume family, and pets are already taken care of. You may be the practical type - your wallet or your phone. You may be the sentimental type - a photo album, a piece of jewelry. Or, you could be like me and resign yourself to running out with nothing because your brain just doesn’t work that fast.

I imagine what you choose could probably say something about your personality. Our tradition does seem to support the idea.

For example, in the Book of Exodus, we learn that after witnessing the miraculous split of the Red Sea, after observing the decimation of the Egyptian army and when feeling the first indications of freedom, “Miriam the prophet…picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums.”

The sages pause here. Sounds like a fun celebration. But they ask: um, weren’t we told that the Israelites left in the dead of night? Didn’t we learn that they didn’t even have time for their bread to rise? If they left in such haste, with nothing but the unbaked dough on their backs, then where did these drums come from?

The Israelite women were faced with the dilemma: “We’re leaving right now. I can take one thing.” And the one thing they all chose was a timbrel.

Rashi explains the rationale, commenting on the womens’ character: “the righteous women in that generation [brought their timbrels because they] were confident that God would perform miracles for them.”

Basically, the women knew deep in their hearts that something good was coming. They knew they would need to sing songs of praise and thanksgiving, and they came ready to do so.

There is a fine line of distinction here, though. It’s one thing to believe that God will perform a miracle and to sit back and let the miracle happen. It’s another thing to run towards the miracle and be ready to celebrate it, to come ready for it with gratitude. In the first scenario, one passively waits, and is likely disappointed. Miriam and her cadre exemplify the second scenario, wherein they participated in the miracle - they, and others, willed it into being.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks places this distinction between passive belief and active hope in the context of Jewish history: 

“One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Knowing what we do of our past, no Jew can be an optimist. But Jews have never – despite a history of sometimes awesome suffering – given up hope.”

Miriam the prophet epitomizes this through her whole life, and even in her death. In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we get word that Miriam dies and is buried in the wilderness. Numbers chapter 20 verse 1 delivers the news. Verse 2 then reads: “and the community was without water, and they rallied against Moses and Aaron.”

It could just be the start of a new story, but the sages say It is no mistake that the well dried up immediately after Miriam’s death. The Israelites had the well on account of her merit. (Side note: this is why we put water in our Miriam’s cups on Passover). 

But what was her merit, specifically? It was that Miriam willed miracles into being. Even before packing her timbrel, earlier on when baby Moses was placed in the basket in the Nile, she followed him and watched over him. She chose to step out from the reeds to speak to Pharaoh's daughter and offer her mother as a nurse to the baby. Miriam knew that Moses was destined to work with God to save the people, but she didn’t sit back and let it happen. She was a woman of hope and action: she followed that basket, she packed her drum. She acted as guarantor of the miracle.

We too must maintain hope in the face of a world that seeks to snuff it out. But this is not passive optimism. Optimism is easily broken by reality. We have too much empirical evidence to prove that things aren’t getting better any time soon.

Hope, though. Hope comes with a mission. Hope means “I’m packing my timbrel. I’m grabbing my protest sign, I’m writing my representatives, I’m going to vote.”

As God’s co-creators, there is no other way. Because the reverse of all of this is true. God is not an optimist when it comes to humanity. If the Book of Numbers shows us anything it is that God is constantly disappointed and frustrated by us. We give God plenty of evidence of our cowardice and hubris. And yet God never gives up hope on the Israelites or the Jewish people today. As soon as we step back in with some courage and gratitude, God is happy to lift us up and have us soar on eagle’s wings.

I’ll close with the story of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who was meditating near the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Lo, the Prophet Elijah came to visit him! "When will the Messiah come?" asked Rabbi Joshua. "Ask him yourself," replied Elijah. "the Messiah is sitting among the poor and sick at the gates of Rome. Like them, he changes the bandanges of his wounds, but does so only one wound at the time, rather than all at once, so that he can get up at a moment's notice and herald the World to Come."

So Rabbi Joshua went to Rome and met the Messiah, who greeted him back. Rabbi Joshua then asked "When will you be coming?" and the Messiah said "Today!" 

But the day went on and the Messiah did not come. Joshua went back to Elijah and said that the Messiah had not told him the truth. Elijah explained "This is what the Psalmist meant when they wrote, “Today…if you will hear my voice.” The Messiah’s arrival is conditional on our hopeful actions and our honest effort in helping to usher in that time of peace.

So pack your timbrels, people. The only way it’s going to get better out there is if we watch over the vulnerable, speak truth to power, and find moments of gratitude. Perhaps the Messiah will come today, if we just heed the voice of our conscience.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Sally, the Sotah, and Roe

Last week, while we were celebrating Pride, there was also another beautiful commemoration happening in the Jewish world. On June 3, 1972, Sally Priesand was ordained a rabbi by the Hebrew Union College. She is the first woman in history to be publicly ordained a rabbi by a seminary.

50 years ago, Sally made it possible for me to be standing up here with all of you.

You don’t need me to tell you the timeline of women’s liberation in our tradition. Put simply, it begins with women as male property and bumps its way along to today. At some moments it feels like we have exceeded our grandmother’s wildest dreams for us, and at other times it feels like 2,000 years have gone by and we’re still having the same struggles. To be a woman today, let alone a Jewish woman, is to feel both liberated and controlled, accepted and set apart. Frankly, it can make your head spin.

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, feels familiar to the modern woman in this way. At first it presents as a bygone relic of its time, but there is something oddly familiar and relevant about it. 

Naso contains laws having to do with vows, theft, betrayal, and adultery. A serious procedure known as the “Sotah Ritual” is tucked into the discussion.

What is the ordeal of the sotah? In short, if a man suspects his wife of adultery, but there are no witnesses who can attest to it, the woman is put through a public and physical ordeal to assess her innocence. Specifically, the text says that if a man is overcome with a “fit of jealousy” and has the suspicion his wife might have cheated, he is to bring her to the Tabernacle and bare her hair. (Married women in ancient times would have had their hair covered for modesty, so uncovering her hair is a shaming gesture that puts her on public, vulnerable display). The priest then creates a magical potion of water from the Tabernacle’s basins mixed with earth from its floor. The woman is made to drink the mucky concoction. If her body, particularly her inner and outer reproductive organs, have a physical reaction to the drink, then she is deemed guilty of adultery. If there is no reaction, she is blameless. The text states that a positive reaction will render her infertile. If she is blameless, she will remain fertile.

We are not the first, nor will we be the last, people to ponder, probe and rail against this perplexing and misogynistic ritual. Many things set it apart and demand our questioning.

Firstly, it is the only “trial by ordeal” in the Torah. There is no other place where guilt or innocence is determined by subjecting a person to such an unpleasant or dangerous exercise.

Secondly, it is astoundingly one-sided - this ritual does not apply to a woman who thinks her husband may have cheated, even though the laws of adultery seem to be applicable to both sexes.

You’ll find fantastic research on this and parallels to other rituals in the Torah. You can find apologetics and alternative readings; many of which I do find compelling.

For example, it is highly likely that because of the physical ramifications and the special note about fertility, this ritual was probably intended to induce miscarriage. To suspect adultery means the paternity is in question, which impacts the status of whatever child is born and throws tribal lines into disarray. The Sotah ritual was an ancient abortion, if you will, that addresses the social concerns of the day.

Scholar Jacob Milgrom believes that this ritual was enacted to save women from public lynching or being forced to throw herself into a river - both of which are well documented punishments for suspected adultresses in other ancient cultures (see Hammurabi’s Code, for example).

The Torah: a Women’s Commentary takes a different approach. The feminist commentary notes that administering the Sotah test ended early in our people’s history. The early rabbis who outright outlaw it wonder if it was even practiced at all. The editors of the Women’s Commentary offer that perhaps the meaning we can find in the ritual is not so much in the ritual itself but in the fact that it was discontinued. You could say that in a bold move, the rabbis discontinued the practice because they understood the deep misogyny and pain inflicted upon the woman and they sought to rectify the situation.

Scholar Lisa Grushcow reads the rabbinic texts closely to expose a somewhat different rationale, though. The rabbis seem to indicate that the ritual changed over time because it simply didn’t work. Meaning: people were still committing adultery and the trust it was looking to establish between partners and in society wasn’t manifesting. It wasn’t worth it to put women through such a weird and terrible ordeal if the things it sought to prevent were still going on.

Whatever scholarly route we choose, I think it is clear that Jewish tradition, no matter how misogynistic in its approach, understands that the way we approach relationships, sexuality and pregnancy can have a tremendous physical, emotional and social impact on a woman.

Using Grushcow’s research, we can even argue that Jewish tradition learned over time that policing women’s bodies and putting them through physical and emotional ordeals to prove their purity and value was not an effective policy.

But we have to center in on one thing in particular: the key reason the Sotah ordeal existed (or didn’t exist) was because there were no witnesses to her assumed crime. The anxiety here is around what happens in private and how a woman uses her body, particularly sexually. The Torah text seeks to police what it cannot control.

And just like that, it feels like we have been transported today. The more things change, the more they stay the same, right?

As we stare down the barrel of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, it is hard as a modern woman not to feel like the Sotah. While an abortion is not being forced upon us, a section of the Court does want to take away a women’s right to privacy - to bare our heads and put our bodies through ordeals we did not ask for or deserve. By allowing individual states to make health assessments and decisions for women based on politics and reactionary traditions - not medicine and science - our nation seeks to yet again control women’s bodies and behavior.

Without access to abortion, birth control and the ability to make safe, private medical decisions, women simply cannot progress in society. The tie between female body autonomy and our achievements in professional spaces are indisputably linked. Without guaranteeing this right, the Supreme Court calls for a return of ancient purity laws - keeping women under lock and key in order to keep them abstinent, chaste, and eventually, when they say it’s ok, baby-makers. Women will be property of the state, whose worth is simply the space available in their wombs.

This flies in the face of our Jewish values. This week, the Sotah ordeal and its eventual abolition teaches that Judaism believes that social mores can change…and that is acceptable when those more move in the direction of inclusion and ensuring dignity for all. Our tradition also believes that women should not bear the brunt of society’s suspicion. Our bodies should not be policed and exploited in an attempt to appease the chauvinistic anxieties of other traditions and political agendas.

Maimonides comments on the trial of the Sotah, saying “this ordeal would only work if the husband never sinned…” Maimonides exposes the double standard, the dangerous emphasis put on women’s bodies and behavior that detracts us from exposing the true sins of our society - the sins of inequality and subjugation, the sins of hubris and superiority.

I pray the next 50 years will be a charge forward rather than a leap back. I pray that the legacy of the people who fought for a seat at the table or a place at the pulpit, will be heralded as inspirational building blocks, not anomalous apparitions in time.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Biblical Construction Projects

This weekend, I’m thinking a lot about construction: building and demolition, specifically. No, I’m not taking up a hobby in engineering, but I am thinking about the upcoming Passover seder and this week’s Torah portion in tandem.

First, the seder next week. When it comes to construction projects, I think the “garrison cities” are the most famous building project of the Passover story. Let’s recap a little: we know that the Israelites were forced to lay bricks and mortar to build these cities for Pharaoh. We also know that when Moses and Aaron first approach Pharoah in defense of the Israelites, Pharaoh spitefully makes the work even harder: no more straw will be provided to hold the bricks together, he declares. The Israelites have to take the time to go gather it, but the same number of bricks are demanded on a daily basis. It’s an impossible task that multiplies the labor and hardship.

The text is clear: the hard labor is one thing, but the malicious, devious intent of Pharaoh's decree is what cuts deep. He knows well the pain he is inflicting. There’s almost a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face as he imposes an impossible task. There’s no regard here for the laborers or the resources.

But nothing about this should surprise us. Torah tells us that these cities being built are “mis-ko-not” - translated as either garrison cities, storehouses, or treasuries for the king. The rabbis explain that the word miskonot indicates that these cities are pretty frivolous. They’re just warehouses, built to pile up weapons and the Pharoah’s loot. They’re his treasury where he hoards his own wealth, not meant for the betterment of his people, let alone the Israelites. They’re storehouses of vanity, built on the broken lives of the oppressed.

We could juxtapose this with a different sort of construction project, one that we find in this week’s Torah portion, Metzora. What we see this week is more of a demolition project, if you will. Leviticus tells us that if someone discovers tza-ra’at - a sort of fungus or affliction - growing on a house, they call the priest in to inspect it. Thus begins a multi-stage process of saving the house. First, the house is boarded up for a few days. If that doesn’t do the trick, if the plague has still spread after the quarantine, then they take out the afflicted bricks and scrape out the fungus. They replace the bricks and replaster. If, after the patch job, the plague continues to spread, only then is the house condemned and torn down.

We can understand this process pragmatically. Ancient Jews didn’t exactly have a ton of house building materials around. This was an economic way to address the houses’ plague and to try to preserve the structure before ripping it down.

But I also see a deeper value here - one that flies in the face of Pharaoh’s decree from back in Exodus. There is such care here to preserve time, resources and energy. A sense that one should do no more harm than needs to be done. Afterall, this is a person’s home we’re talking about, where they care for their family. It is treated with dignity, respect and care. Pharaoh, of course, has no idea what those things are.

If you’re of the construction mind, the Torah is filled with construction projects like this and they have similar juxtapositions. For example, the Israelites build the Golden calf - the gross epitome of vapid idol worship - which then gets replaced with the Tabernacle - a beautiful home for the 10 commandments where one does not see God, but rather where our hearts commune with the Divine.

Or think of the Tower of Babel - a highly successful construction project that, like Pharaoh’s cities, was a large-scale project with no holy purpose other than to feed egos. That building too is condemned…physically and metaphorically.

This week we ask ourselves: what are we Jews supposed to build? Well, the answer is easy: lives of virtue. Relationships full of decency. The physical spaces we construct are there to house the friendships, nurture the relationships. Hence our humble sanctuary. Or the seder tables we will finally sit around again. Why did we miss them so much these last 2 years? Maybe it’s because you love your uncle’s matzah ball soup, but I bet it's more because of the relationships formed around the table while passing the charoset.

One more building project from the seder that is worth noting. It’s a small project, one that you might miss if you don’t look hard enough.

When Yocheved gives birth to Moses, she hides him until his cries become too loud. So she builds a small ark caulked with reeds and pitch. The word used is “teva,” an ark, like the one back in Genesis. Like Noah adrift during the great Flood, Moses is set to float on the Nile - representing the last hope for his people.

Yocheved’s construction project, like Noah’s before her, is born of love and devotion. Her’s though, is small, quiet and unassuming. We Jews will build many things in our lives - physically and spiritually. We learn tonight that we are meant to build with humble purpose and always with hope. We build for what the future may hold, not just to hoard what we have now.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Tazria & Tongue Twisters

Cantor Lance and I were talking about that song we just sang: Elohai N’tzor. We both like the melody but we find the words to be quite the tongue twister. And then we realized that maybe that’s the point!

The prayer translates as: My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception. Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.

The prayer helps to accomplish what it prays for: it sort of trips up your tongue, ties it up for a while in a tongue twister, in order to keep the focus on God and humility, rather than the many other things our tongues say and do.

It has been a week where we have been hypertuned to the power of words and how they do or do not reflect our own humility. There’s the Chris Rock/Will Smith controversy at the Oscars where a joke led to much more. And there’s President Biden’s comment that Putin “cannot remain in power” which was either just an expression of his moral outrage, or a provocation with impact on policy. In both of these controversies, we see that words affect not just the speaker, but those who hear the words as well.

When not tied up properly the tongue can be vicious, petty and impulsive. The Talmud argues that God knew this and designed the human body to remind us of it. To the tongue, God says: “I have surrounded you with two walls, one of bone (the teeth) and one of flesh (the lips). What more can be done to prevent you from speaking in a deceitful manner?”

But our tongues can’t help themselves, can they? Even when we think our words are innocent, or even when we think what we’re saying is for the greater good, we often find ourselves insulting, demeaning and hurting people around us.

There’s an old Hasidic story about this:

The Baal Shem Tov once instructed several of his disciples to embark on a journey. The BeSHt did not tell them where to go, nor did they ask; they allowed divine providence to direct their wagon where it may, confident that the destination and purpose of their trip would be revealed in due time.

After traveling for several hours, they stopped at a wayside inn to eat and rest. Now, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples were pious Jews who insisted on the highest standards of keeping kosher. When they learned that their host planned to serve them meat in their meal, they asked to see the shokhet (ritual slaughterer) of the house and they interrogated him vigorously as to his knowledge and piety. They examined his knife for any possible blemishes. Their discussion of the kashrut standard of the food continued throughout the meal, as they inquired after the source of every ingredient in each dish set before them. As they spoke and ate, a voice emerged from behind the oven, where an old beggar was resting amidst his bundles. "Dear students," she called out, "are you as careful with what comes out of your mouth as you are with what enters into it?"

The party of Hassidim concluded their meal in silence, climbed onto their wagon and turned it back toward their hometown. They now understood the purpose for which their Rebbe had dispatched them on their journey that morning. What public shame they had brought to the innkeeper and the shochet! Their arrogance was on full display. Thinking they were asking holy questions, they were really sowing mistrust and humiliating their hosts. A humble nature and a compassionate tongue, the Baal Shem Tov teaches, is the the most holy act of all.

This week’s Torah portion is Tazria. It contains many regulations and rituals for dealing with various skin afflictions, including a serious one called ‘tzara’at.’

The commentators reach below the text to understand why the rules around the affliction take up so much real estate in the Torah’s text. In the text, we learn that one purification ritual includes bringing birds for sacrifice. The great commentator Rashi explains why birds are offered: “Because the plague of tzara'at comes as a punishment for slander, which is done by chattering. Therefore birds are compulsory for the purification, because birds chatter, as it were, continuously with a twittering sound.”

The Baal Shem Tov’s story and Rashi’s comment warn us of the danger of “idle chatter” - of talking just because you can, or speaking over another person, not making enough room for dissent. This is chatter in the way of speaking without thinking about the consequences. And we know that gossip in Jewish tradition is one of the worst things we can engage in.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani says that Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Leprous marks come and afflict a person for seven sinful matters: For malicious speech, for bloodshed, for an oath taken in vain, for licentiousness, for arrogance, for theft, and for stinginess.

It seems to me that the way we chatter and talk can lead to all of these things. We are mean. We tell lies or spread rumors that can injure a person’s livelihood and relationships. We put ourselves above others or abuse them verbally, humiliating their spirit.

Proverbs says that “a soothing tongue is a tree of life, but its perverseness is a broken spirit” (5:4).

And here, like so many times in our tradition, we get the other side of the coin. Yes, our tongues, our speech, are prone to sin. And yet the opposite is also true - our mouths have the ability to bring healing and life as well. Otherwise, we would not have been created with the ability to speak as we do!

In order to bring that life-giving speech, we must heed the Buddhist wisdom, articulated by the poet Rumi: Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

These gates are not too unlike the walls our tradition speaks of. Yet it adds a third layer - what we say doesn’t just go through the teeth or the mouth, but the heart as well.

This week, let us all commit to issuing words that sustain and inspire those around us, fulfilling the prayer we sang tonight:

Elohai n’tzor l’shoni meh-ra, us-fatai midabeir mirmah

My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit
Let my soul be silent to those who curse me,
And let my soul be at peace.

In my quiet, may I feel your presence
And join with the great Unity of your creation

Silent to pessimism,
Tongue guarded from hate and judgment
Only tasting the sweet date honey of your Torah and your love.

And when I know it enough
When its sticky syrup has dissolved deep into my soul,
When the golden sweetness illumines my thoughts,
Then let me open my mouth to speak
For the sake of your name
For the sake of your right hand
For the sake of your Torah and for your holiness

So that the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
May be acceptable to you, Oh God,
The rock of my life and the redeemer of my days.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Women's History Month and the Jews

2022 is a major milestone year for Jewish women.

Two names must be mentioned: Sally Priesand and Judith Kaplan.

Let’s start with Sally. On June 3, we will celebrate 50 years of women in the rabbinate. Sally Priesand is the first woman to be ordained publicly as a rabbi by a Jewish seminary. There were learned women before her: Regina Jonas who was ordained privately in Germany, Ray Frank, and Asenath Barzani, as well as others who held positions of moral power. But Sally is the one who broke the glass ceiling for women like me.

Rabbi Jennifer Clayman wrote this moving tribute to Sally:

Because of you, Sally, and those who came after you, I was never told that a woman can’t be a rabbi. Because of you and those who came after you, my rabbi was able to stand up on teh bimah at the Bat Mitzvah and tell me he thought I should be a rabbi…today, I wouldn’t say that I take women rabbis for granted, because I don’t. And I won’t say that we’re accepted everywhere, because we’re not. But we’re not so unusual either. I was the fourth woman rabbi hired by my congregation, and we’ve since been joined by the fifth. The congregation is accustomed to women’s voices from the pulpit, women’s ideas about God, Torah and Israel, and women’s authority in difficult times. We owe you a great deal. Your chesed has changed our lives and changed a world that has missed women rabbis for far too long.

But before this golden anniversary of the first woman rabbi, we will celebrate Judith Kaplan. On March 18, 1922, Judith became the first American girl to have a bat mitzvah ceremony. That is 100 years of women approaching the bimah to take their rightful place as full participants in Jewish life, learning and ritual. 50 years of women leading these communities.

I’m struck by this. On the one hand, 100 years ago feels like a long time ago. There are now generations of women and non-binary folks who have been called to the Torah and are finding inclusion in Jewish life.

But if you think about it, it took 50 years for the first bat mitzvah to transform into acceptance for the first woman rabbi. Change is slow. Only after battering down the door of one barrier can you move forward and prepare yourself to take down the next.

This timeline demonstrates how important it is to take public, courageous steps into the future. 

We should never underestimate the power of example - the power of representation and public inclusion. Only after a generation of young women saw themselves standing at the Torah could they then begin to dream of leading the Torah service and their community.

So let’s apply the same logic to today. For 50 years, we have seen the benefit of fully including women in Jewish leadership. Our community has more insights, a wider array of experiences to learn from. We have made incredible strides in areas of parental leave and we’ve called out abuse of power that existed for too long. Women have brought this to the table.

But now is not the time to stop and rest. It is again the time for transformation. And it begins again with visibility.

A prayer of thanks to today’s trailblazers and iconoclasts - the LGBTQ+ leaders of our community. To the Jews of Color. These are folks who have been ignored or simply tolerated. Now they are to be celebrated.

Just dream of what we’ll be celebrating 50 years from now. Too often we Jews believe ourselves to be a dying people. We question if we will fade into the fabric of America and lose our way. But if history has taught us ANYTHING, it’s that we are an evolving people. I can not even begin to predict what today’s youth will bring us. But I know that if they continue to hear from as many voices as possible - if they have the opportunity to see their most authentic selves represented in positions of power - not just on the bimah but in our schools and in the halls of congress - then we will see some incredible transformations of our society. So here’s to the next 50 years. Or, if we work hard enough, it won’t take that long.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Repro Shabbat 2022

I came across this Torah from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Basic to human existence is a sense of indebtedness — of indebtedness to society, of indebtedness to God.  What is emerging in our age is a strange inversion.  Modern people believe that the world is indebted to them;  that society is charged with duties toward them.  Their standard preoccupation is:  What will I get out of life?  Suppressed is the question:  What will life — what will society — get out of me?”

For those that know Heschel’s writing, this is a common sentiment of his. He offers a lot of perspective when it comes to gratitude and awe, seeing these as a pathway to experiencing God. The experience of the individual is important. Yet he often cautions about centering ourselves in the universe. As he sees it, God places a tremendous amount of trust and responsibility in us and our community. Yes, we have to acknowledge our blessings, but we will find our worth in how much we can give them too.

I agree with Heschel’s sense of inversion. We act as if everything is due to us but we don’t stop to ask what we must give in return. I see so much of this around us today: the current public health crisis, for example. If we had more of a “we” mentality, we’d take action as a society to protect one another. Unfortunately, we keep butting up against some very stubborn American individualism, in which we poo-poo and even distrust the recommendations for how we can keep one another safe. I believe we’ve hit a stage of the pandemic where the guidance is so obscure and has been made so political that we’ve been turned loose into “every person for themselves.”

I want to be clear: I’m not dismissing the need for people to make decisions for themselves. Each human, as an expression of their value and integrity, should be given final jurisdiction over their own body and family. I’m highlighting, though, how Jewish tradition would want us to make choices for ourselves while also understanding how they impact others. It is Hillel who said it best: “Im ein ani mi, mi li? U’keshani l’atzmi, mah ani? If I am not for myself who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I?”

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim. It contains a long list of civil laws, which, while articulated in the language of an ancient agrarian society, are rooted in some clear cut values. There’s the theme of fairness: when people or their property cause injury to other people and/or their property, they should make appropriate restitution and the punishment varies in degree of the crime. The laws understand acting with malicious intent versus accidents.  It stresses the need to take proper precautions in order to protect yourself and others. If you neglect to take those precautions, there are consequences.

My favorite example of this in the portion is the goring ox. I know goring oxen are not exactly a big threat to most of us, and I don’t want to minimize how terribly destructive a goring ox could be, but I do have a soft spot for the goring ox. Torah says that if an ox gets out of control and gores a person, the ox is put down but the owner is not punished. If, however, the ox is “in the habit of goring,” and gores a person, then the owner is punished. The owner should have known better and taken the proper precautions to control their ox!

Or there’s the example of a person who digs a pit and neglects to cover it up. If an ox falls into the pit, the pit-owner must repay the ox owner for the loss of the ox, because they should’ve known better to look out for others in this way.

Torah is clear: we have to take the proper precautions - personally and civically - to protect life, property and general well-being of one another.

Enter Repro Shabbat - a national movement to celebrate the critical importance of reproductive health access, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice. It’s this Shabbat. 

At first blush, you could argue that the fight for reproductive rights is all about the “me.” We warriors of reproductive rights chant “my body, my choice.” Heck, anti-choice advocates could use my own argument against me tonight: shouldn’t someone be looking out for the unborn?

But to understand the Jewish approach to reproductive rights is to understand the balance between the “me” and the “we.”

Firstly, our tradition points to this week’s Torah portion as a prooftext for why the existing, established life of the mother takes precedence over the potential life of the fetus. Protection is extended first and foremost to the living human. 

There is a strong Jewish assertion that every woman not only deserves autonomy over her body, but that as a society we are obligated to take precautions that protect her autonomy and her life. This means access to the wide array of health-related medicines, procedures and general care that protects her mentally and physically: birth control, preventative OBGYN care, and abortion access.

Today in America, we are walking precariously close to the open pit of not just curtailing a woman’s right to choose but acting as a society to knowingly cause harm to the health of 50% of the population. We are goring at the basic human rights of others, which flies in the face of the Torah’s injunction to protect one another.

Which brings us back to Heschel:

“Basic to human existence is a sense of indebtedness — of indebtedness to society, of indebtedness to God.”

We are grateful to God for the gifts of our bodies and minds, each one of which is powerful and capable and full of dignity. We show our gratitude through self-care and making healthy, life-affirming decisions for ourselves. And our tradition calls upon us to show gratitude to God by asserting the right for other living humans to feel safe. This means standing up for members of our society who have historically been ignored or made disadvantaged in our public health system. We have been given the responsibility of looking out for one another - making choices as a society that enable each of us to experience the Godliness within us. The more we can activate eachother’s potential, help one another live life fully, the stronger our society and the stronger we, individually, will be.

Friday, January 21, 2022

After Colleyville, Texas

The hostage situation this week hit a lot of us hard. While we’re so grateful that none of the hostages died, we’re still understandably shook. One week ago, our hearts beat with the hearts of those who were held for hours. We sat in the pit with our Jewish family, able to do nothing but hold space and connect with them through our people’s Oneness. If ever we understood the phrase “kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh” - all of the Jewish people are responsible and connected to one another - it was in those tense moments of waiting.

This event hit the Reform Jewish community particularly hard. It was impossible not to see ourselves in that situation, to imagine the scenario in our own building with our own congregants and clergy. I don’t know Rabbi Charlie personally, but many of my clergy friends do. We’re peers. Reform clergy are having a particularly raw week.

It’s hard to disconnect this incident from what we are all craving most at this moment: a basic sense of safety. All we want is to just feel secure from disease; to embrace people without fear of the aerosols they may emit. We just want to go to work or out to dinner without having to run an “exposure risk algorithm.” And when we do re-enter the public sphere, we want to attend sports games and concerts without fear that some crazy person will disrupt it with violence. We just want to be carefree for a minute. This is what every American is feeling right now. 

So then add on top of that the experience of being LGBTQ+, BIPOC, poor or otherwise marginalized. 

Tonight, though, we have to talk about Jewish Americans - our collective trauma, the aggression our people experience in large and small ways every day in America.

We deserve to enter Jewish spaces without feeling like there’s a target on our backs and the backs of our children. We are exhausted by constantly mustering the gall to be “proudly Jewish” everytime a madman threatens a synagogue, or mobs with tiki torches chant “Jews will not replace us” or a member of congress makes reference to Jewish money and influence.

Not only am I feeling vulnerable this week, but I’m also angry. I preach against racism, I preach against bigotry - diseases that weaken and desecrate our society. 

But why am I starting to feel like anti-semitism is a chronic disease that our nation has decided it can just live with? Why have we Jews been left to our own devices to fundraise and rearrange temple budgets, taking money away from program and ritual fund just to funnel it into security guards and security cameras?

How can it possibly be that FBI and national leaders could initially look at Colleyville and determine that anti-semitism was not the motive? Just because the perpetrator wasn’t yelling slurs doesn’t mean it is any less present. He’s actually part of a long, twisted tradition - going back to the 8th century, of using Jews as bait and exploiting Jewish familial ties to extract money or other outcomes. From then to today, the anti-semitic assumption is that BECAUSE there is some sort of Jewish power conspiracy, they can take us hostage to get what they want.

Bret Stephens put it perfectly in today’s NYTimes:

In the days since the attack, the F.B.I.’s head-in-sand approach, along with so much of the media’s strange pattern of omission, has been the chief topic of discussion in every Jewish circle to which I belong. How can it be, we ask ourselves, that Jews should be victimized twice? First, by being physically targeted for being Jewish; second, by being begrudged the universal recognition that we were morally targeted, too? And how can it be that in this era of heightened sensitivity to every kind of hatred, bias, stereotype, -ism and -phobia, both conscious and unconscious, there’s so much caviling, caveating and outright denying when it comes to calling out bias aimed at Jews?

We Jews feel alone again. If it is not classic Jew hatred, then we’re weathering the assertions that because Jews have power and privilege that we can’t be victims as well.

I’m not in the business of comparing the oppressions. Each oppression has its own causes and symptoms and challenges. All I am asking for is that we not deny the oppression that exists for Jews in America. Please just see it and decide that it too is not okay.

Dara Horn just received the National Jewish Book Award for her recent publication about anti-semitism: People Love Dead Jews. It is eerily relevant in the wake of Colleyville. But that’s her point, actually. In the book, she tackles the ambivalence to anti-semitism, which is anti-semitism in and of itself. 

As she tours Holocaust Museums and exhibits, she questions what effect the Holocaust has on our modern reactions to anti-semitism. She writes:

“The last few generations of American non-Jews had been chagrined by the enormity of the Holocaust - which had been perpetrated by America’s enemy, and which was grotesque enough to make anti-semitism socially unacceptable, even shameful. Now that people who remembered the shock of those events [are] dying off, the public shame associated with expressing anti-semitism [is] dying too…”

But more than expressing regret that the “shock factor” has worn off, Horn is concerned that our current display of Holocaust artifacts and our harping on the enormity of the situation, has the adverse affect to what we want to achieve: “yes, everyone must learn about the Holocaust so as to not repeat it. But this has come to mean that anything short of the Holocaust is, well, not the Holocaust. The bar is rather high.”

What happened in Colleyville is not the Holocaust. Fliers linking Jewish people to the COVID pandemic is not the Holocaust. Swastika gratifi on a middle school is not the Holocaust. 

But it shouldn’t have to be the Holocaust for Americans to speak out. We shouldn’t rationalize the catcalling or shoving that happens to ultra-orthodox Jews on the streets of New York and Jersey City as justified protest to “gentrification” or qualms with Israel.

It’s wrong to victimize Jews. Period. End of sentence. I await the outrage.

And despite this, I welcome the heartfelt notes I’ve received from local Christian and Muslim groups. I most especially welcome the Jewish pride that this evokes in myself and others. 

Because, the most important thing we can assert is that being Jewish is NEVER a burden. A heavy responsibility, sure, but never a burden. 

As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “to be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serial threatened by despair. Every ritual, every element of Jewish law is a protest against escapism, resignation of the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known…[all] in the name of a world that could be, should be, but is not yet.”

I pray that in our fear, exhaustion and anger, we can find that voice of protest. The still, small voice within that refuses to despair. That voice that in its more tenuous moments, grabs hold of the ancient song of our people and rides a while on its current until its strength is restored and it can begin to sing along.