Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Tuesday, December 26, 2023


I feel like it’s a strange time to take a sabbatical. The Jewish community feels all at once activated and depleted and hurting. There are lifecycle events I’m sad to be missing.

These moments are significant to the people going through them and they feel very special and spiritual to me personally. There are no holier spaces than the ones where we gather to sing, cry, comfort and praise together. They are holy because we are together. It’s hard to step away from something so spiritually affirming.

But when I think about it, I guess any time would be a strange time to take a sabbatical. Given that we are a community of humans in human relationships, there will always be members of our community who are sick, loved ones to bury, and babies to name. And when it comes to this moment in time, these difficult days politically and culturally, there’s really no “stepping away,” even if you do mute the news updates.

It then becomes clear to me how essential a sabbatical is. Just like you, I am activated, depleted, and hurting. Oh, and remember how we weathered a pandemic together? I am so grateful, then, for this gift you have given me - the gift of time. Thank you for giving me space to learn, rest, reconnect, and foster my own spirituality so that I can continue to help you do the same.

All that said, while the last few years, and especially the last few months, have brought stress and turmoil, they have also brought growth. The importance and relevance of the synagogue in the 21st century has never been more clear for me.

Synagogues…our synagogue…is a spiritual meeting ground where we encourage, confront and comfort each other. It is where we endeavor to be forward-moving, moral, connected humans. When we achieve this, we not only access God, but we help one another and society to thrive.

Doing this, though, requires deep listening, cultivating our capacity to hold complexity, and trust.

We all know that operating in that way is sometimes easier said than done. It is in our nature to judge others, or misinterpret their intentions and words. Sometimes we are so driven by our own goals and anxieties that we forget to open our perspective up to others. We are often caught reading our own agenda into people’s words and actions.

When it comes to cultivating the capacity to really hear and appreciate one another’s intentions, the Chofitz Chayim, an early 20th century sage, told a parable:

“There was once a man who was visiting a small town in Europe. It was Shabbat morning, and he went to the local synagogue. Everything was just as you might expect, until unusual things started happening. There were well-dressed, obviously prosperous people seated near the front, but all the honors for the Torah-reading were given to scruffy men who stood clustered at the back of the room. When it came time for the rabbi to say a few words of wisdom, all he spoke about was the weather. After the prayers were finished, lovely food was spread on the table and nobody ate.

The man was flummoxed by all these incomprehensible goings-on. What kind of place was this? Was everyone here crazy? Finally, he pulled aside one of the locals and asked, "What's going on here? The men who got the Torah honors, the rabbi's talk, the uneaten food… nothing makes any sense!"

The man explained, "Those scruffy looking men had been unjustly imprisoned and the community worked long and hard to ransom them to freedom. Isn't it wonderful that they are now free to come to bless the Torah? The rabbi spoke only about the weather because there has been an unusual drought this season and the farmers have nothing on their minds but their crops, and the rabbi knew and cared for their concerns. Why didn't anyone eat? One Shabbat every month the community prepares its usual lunch but instead of eating it, the food is donated to the local home for the elderly."

How often do we make similar assumptions behind people’s personal decisions, or their political views? How often does this happen in our own synagogue, where we neglect to see the care, concern and thought that went into temple affairs?

The Hebrew word for trust is “bitachon.” It comes from the word “betach” which means not only to trust, but to secure, to have confidence in, to make one feel safe.

Our job, as citizens, as humans, is to make one another feel safe. I truly believe it is as simple as that. We do that by having open, honest conversations and not jumping to conclusions. We give people space when they need space and we do not make demands without room for discussion. Every human being is full of fear and worry, trying their best. Let’s assuage their fears, rather than add to them.

In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph brings his father to Egypt in order to escape the famine in Canaan. God senses Jacob’s concern. Not only is Jacob old, but he is concerned about leaving the land that was promised to him, that Abraham and Isaac toiled for. He doesn’t say any of this, but God understands it.

God comes to Jacob in a dream, saying, “Al tirah mehr-dah Mitzraymah - Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation…I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back.”

Jacob’s fears are not unfounded. Torah has made it clear that the Egyptians do not like the Hebrews. Also, why would Jacob willingly leave the Promised Land? God assures him that sometimes you have to go the circuitous route in order to get to where you really need to be. God assures Jacob: even in tough times, I am with you. You may suffer, but you will survive. That is the trust I represent and the trust you must have - that you will survive this.

Not only will our ancestors survive Egypt, but the Hebrews’ time there will be instrumental in cultivating the compassionate spirit towards others that we Jews are so proud of.

But just because we cultivated it once doesn’t mean we have to continue to find it within ourselves. Here in our own synagogue community, in our personal relationships and workplaces, in our towns and across the globe.

This is the simple message of our tradition: Be good to one another. The history of your ancestors has taught you to listen deeply. You are strong enough to hold emotional complexity. Trust in God, trust in one another.

Al tirah - don’t fear what comes your way, for you have one another.


Civil Rights Journey Reflection 2023

When it comes to crying, I’m ok with letting it out. If there’s a poignant ending to a movie, or if someone has shared something that moves me, I’ll well up a little bit and wipe a tear or two from the corners of my eyes.

Other than that, I don’t do a lot of crying otherwise. Don’t get me wrong: I believe it is ok to cry, healthy to cry, and I think you should cry if you need to, as often as you need to.

Evidently, there was a moment on our trip where I needed to take this advice. I’m going to share with you a vulnerable moment, a moment that surprised me, really. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

The scene: Montgomery Alabama. It was drizzling outside. We scarfed down a continental breakfast and drove to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It was my first time on the site, having been built between my last Civil Rights Journey and this one. The memorial is built into a hilltop overlooking Montgomery. More than 4,400 Black people killed between 1877 and 1950 are remembered there. Their names are engraved on more than 800 steel monuments—one for each county where a crime took place. It was beautiful and eery and heartbreaking all at the same time. I had a tear in my eye the whole time.

Wet with the morning’s mist, we went over to its sister site, the Legacy Museum. The museum is built on the site of a cotton warehouse where enslaved Black people were forced to labor in bondage. When visiting the museum, you travel through immersive exhibits that tell a comprehensive history of the destructive violence that shaped our nation, from the slave trade, to the era of Jim Crow, to our current mass incarceration crisis.

Our group entered the exhibit hall without me. I had to stay back and work on some logistical details with our tour guide. When we finished our conversation, he went off for some coffee, having visited the museum many times before. I hadn’t, so I decided to enter. Our teens had plowed forward and no other patrons were there at the time. I went in alone.

The first room evokes the terrifying and deadly Middle Passage. You’re surrounded by 4 walls of thundering water. You’re sinking into the depths of history. You’re drowning in the experience. I was flooded.

I slowly moved into the next room, still alone, except for a quiet docent stationed in a corner. The walls of waves continued, now joined by clay renderings of chained bodies, sinking in anguish. Bodies of men, women and children. Babies clinging to their parents. A voice began describing the forceful separation of families and the brutality of being taken captive. Standing in the center of this room, my body ceased to exist. I was enveloped by the waves, I became the rushing ocean and I began to sob.

At first I tried to stop myself. But realizing I was alone, realizing how filled to the brim I was, I allowed myself to put my head in my hands, bend my knees and sob, deeply, from my belly. The docent walked over quietly and gently handed me a small package of tissues, turned, and returned to her spot. I sobbed for a good five minutes.

I didn’t expect to react this way. I’ve been to heart-wrenching exhibits before. But once it started I did understand why I was crying. The sheer brutality of the subject matter was enough to take you under but I also knew I was releasing the salty tears that had been building in my body since October 7. They joined the ocean of whoa that I was now consumed in. My eyes could no longer act as a barrier between the two.

“It is all pain…tormented, violent, hateful pain,” I thought to myself. All I could think about was how our world is utterly corrupted by abduction, sexual assault, beheadings and bombings. All I could feel was the agony of the violence we do to one another.

I return to this moment all these weeks later, because the destruction - emotionally and physically - has only continued. I am still flooded by the loss of human life, the callousness to one another’s pain, the way we use human beings as pawns in a shameful game of domination.

That day in the museum, I could feel the tears of my ancestors seeping out of my own eyes. We know that every group, all persecuted people, carry the scarred DNA of their ancestors.

Then and now, I feel as if my ancestors are crying, “have we learned nothing at all?”

This week’s haftarah tells the famous story of King Solomon adjudicating a fight between two women. Each woman claims that a certain baby is theirs. In order to suss out the true mother, Solomon calls for a sword. “Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other…” “Give the baby to her!” one woman cries desperately. “Just don’t kill it!” “This one, the one who rather give up the baby to save its life, is the true mother,” Solomon decries.

We point to this story as evidence of Solomon’s cleverness and wisdom. But as I look at the story again this week, all I can see is how the children are the ones who suffer from our callousness toward one another and the political games we play. The sword is held above their heads everyday. When will all humanity have the decency to say, “This must end! Just don’t kill any more babies!”?

Tonight, these teens give me such hope. They have been handed a world full of racism, bigotry, and war. And yet they dare to dive in, learn the lessons and resolve to build something better. They even pick up a few Buc-ees pajama sets along the way.

Because it turns out they inherited more than trauma from their ancestors.

Xavier Dagba, a life coach, had a tweet go viral recently; it said: “As you clear your generational trauma, don’t forget to claim your generational strengths. Your ancestors gave you more than wounds.”

Our ancestors did give us more than just wounds. They gave us grit, resilience, and imagination. We do not need to accept the suffering we see. We can resolve to be better. We can be the generation that unites families, builds homes, and begets laughter.

I’ll leave you with the words of the poet Alberto Rios. I’ve read them before. I cling to this poem for hope, like a life-raft in an ocean of anguish. It speaks to our teens, it speaks to all of us:

A House Called Tomorrow

You are not fifteen, or twelve, or seventeen — You are a hundred wild centuries And fifteen,
bringing with you in every breath and in every step
Everyone who has come before you, all the yous that you have been,
The mothers of your mother, the fathers of your father.
If someone in your family tree was trouble, a hundred were not:
The bad do not win—not finally, no matter how loud they are.
We simply would not be here if that were so. You are made, fundamentally, from the good. With this knowledge, you never march alone.
You are the breaking news of the century. You are the good who has come forward
Through it all, even if so many days
Feel otherwise. But think: when you as a child learned to speak,
It’s not that you didn’t know words — It’s that, from the centuries, you knew so many,
And it’s hard to choose the words that will be your own.
From those centuries we human beings bring with us the simple solutions and songs, The river bridges and star charts and song harmonies all in service to a simple idea: That we can make a house called tomorrow. What we bring, finally, into the new day, every day, is ourselves. And that’s all we need to start. That’s everything we require to keep going.
Look back only for as long as you must, then go forward into the history you will make.
Be good, then better. Write books. Cure disease. Make us proud. Make yourself proud.
And those who came before you?
When you hear thunder, hear it as their applause.


Hanukkah 5784

Our dear rabbinic intern, Lara, gave an exquisite recital at Hebrew Union College last Tuesday. In what I dubbed “suburban mom’s day in the city,” I headed in by train to meet up with Cantor Jenna and cheer Lara on.

I rarely have an hour of sedentary time by myself (that’s what a sabbatical is for?) so I didn’t have a great game plan for the train. So what did I do? I opened my NYTimes app and started to go down the Israel news rabbit hole.

I don’t have to describe it to you, because you can imagine my mood when I arrived down to HUC. As excited as I was for Lara, I sat down with a large knot in my stomach.

But then Lara began to sing. The program she had researched and prepared was called “Musical Expressions of Psalms of Longing.” It was the catharsis my heart needed.

There was one piece, one line, that got lodged in my heart and I’ve been thinking about since.

Psalm 130 begins: “From the depths I call You, Adonai. Adonai, listen to my voice, be attentive to the voice of my plea.”

Then it asks: “If You were to keep count of all our sins, God, who would endure? With you, there is forgiveness, and that is what makes you so great.”

“If You were to keep count of all our sins, who would endure?”

Otherwise put: if God kept count of all times we have failed or hurt one another, no one - no person, group or country - would emerge victorious in virtue. If God punished everyone who acted wrongly, not one human would be left on this earth.

It is as if the psalmist declares: all the tit-for-tat, the keeping count, the moral equivalents, it's a zero sum game. It is all pain. Pain abroad; pain in our own neighborhood and our hearts.

A war rages this Hanukkah - physically and spiritually - manifesting in each of us differently. 

And I was thinking about how Hanukkah is the story of war. But we don’t glorify war, do we? We don’t sit here and recount the gruesome details. Hanukkah’s message of triumph over tyranny, its insistence of hope in the face of despair - these are the messages that endure, the stories we tell.

There’s another question that we famously ask on Hanukkah, similar to the one Psalm 130 posed:

מי ימלל גבורות ישראל

אותן מי ימנה

“Mi Yimalel? Who can retell the things that befell us? Who can count them?”

It’s another uncountable rhetorical question: how many times have our people mourned a darkened world? How many times as suffering of our own people and of our neighbors tore at our hearts? To count them, to recount them, feels as if it could drive us crazy.

But then the song offers hope: 

הן בכל דור יקום הגיבור

גואל העם

In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid! 

And it continues: just like the Maccabees restored the Temple, tonight our people dream! We will arise, we will unite, and we will be redeemed!

We can’t begin to count the hardships, but we can publicize the miracle that we are here! We can sing with joy that we are strong enough to withstand the calamities and that through those songs of hope, we resolve to act for justice.

“In every age, a hero or sage came to our aid.” Look around…you are those heroes. Like the Maccabees, you may be battered and scared. And like the little cruse of holy oil left in the Temple, you may feel depleted. But even from the small spark of hope, there can be a candelabra of light. You can be a Maccabee, you can be a light, you can be the miracle this Hanukkah.

Friday, August 4, 2023

Compassion to the Wicked: Parshat Eikev

I wanted to avoid this week’s Torah portion all together - or at least concentrate on the pretty parts.

You see, Moses is continuing his farewell speech to the Israelites. And there are lovely parts to what he has to say: he describes the seven species of fruit and grain that the Israelites will enjoy in the bountiful harvest of Canaan. There is wonder at God’s greatness, celebration of how God cared for the Israelites in the desert: how their sandals never wore out and they had plenty of manna to eat.

And then Moses comes in with a doozy…telling the Israelites that when they head into the Land of Canaan they will have to annihilate people living there who are not believers in God. They are told to show no mercy, they’ll need to burn their idols to dust. “Your God יהוה will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic until they are wiped out.”

It doesn’t sound so great to the modern ear.

Now trust me, I could use every apologetic in the book to turn this stark command around. I could place it in its historical and cultural context. I could translate it differently, or avoid it altogether. 

Yet there is wisdom even in the things that aren’t comfortable. So let’s provide some context, just so we can understand better. 

I don’t think this text is blood thirsty as much as I think it is trying to empower the Israelite people. God’s goal is not for Israelites to become fierce warriors, waging war around the region. Instead, God wants the Israelites to understand that their upcoming campaign has moral implications. 

Moses chooses to be very clear on this particular point. He says: “And when your God יהוה has thrust [your enemies] from your path, do not say to yourselves, “יהוה has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues”; it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations that יהוה is dispossessing them before you.”

Don’t get haughty, he’s saying. This bloody military campaign isn’t to prove your virtuousness or superiority, it exists because those people are wicked.

Still problematic, I know. But the Torah is making an important point here, one we can relate to. There are bad actors in this world and their odious actions must be met with consequences. Commenting on this week’s verses, the 18th century commentator Or HaChaim leads us to Proverbs, where it says: “showing compassion to the wicked is cruelty.” I take this note to mean that some evil deserves to be punished and to let it stand would cause unnecessary harm to the victims and the moral fabric of our world.

You can imagine that this commentary hit me hard this week as the jury ordered the death penalty for the perpetrator of the Tree of Life shooting, the bloodiest anti-semitic attack on US soil. It rang in my ear: “Showing compassion to the wicked is cruelty.” You could say this modern sentencing finds weight in our tradition.

But does our tradition support the death penalty? In some places yes, and in some places no. 

For example, there is the famous story where Rabbi Meir was being harassed by some thugs in his neighborhood. He prays that they may die. His wife, Beruriah, rebukes him, saying, “are you basing your death wish on the verse from Psalms where it says “may sinners perish from the land and the wicked will be no more?” Read it again, she says, it says “may SINs perish from the land and then wickedness will be no more.” Pray that they may experience repentance, she says. You don’t want to end their lives, you want to eradicate the evil inclination.

In combining this week’s Torah portion and Beruriah’s wisdom, I am hoping to show that our tradition gives us permission to wrestle morally with this week’s verdict, as I know many of us are. 

The real question we should be asking, in my opinion, is not if Judaism accepts the death penalty. The real question is: what is justice?

I’ll throw a wrench into this difficult question, by pointing to one more section of this week’s Torah portion. As much as the parsha promotes violence, it also commands this:

“Do not stiffen your necks anymore…God is the great, mighty and feared God Who does not consider personal standing and accepts no bribe, but rather, a God who upholds the rights of the orphan and widow and stranger. You, too, shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Love. Who saw that coming? You shall love the stranger, uphold the rights of the vulnerable, regardless of class, race or religion.

This is the emotional paradox of our ancestors, who suffered so greatly and yet wanted to leave room in their hearts for compassion. We struggle with it too. We want to punish the guilty, we want to eradicate evil from our midst. And yet we want to be open-hearted and merciful to all humanity.

You may believe this week’s verdict was justice and I would see your point. You may be uneasy with it, or oppose it, and I would see your point as well.

I believe that as long as we struggle with the concept of justice and set it as an intention, we are living according to our tradition’s code. There isn’t an easy answer, just like this isn’t an easy parsha, but in struggling, we keep our hearts pliable and open, for the greater sin would be callousness.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Alternate Universes

Given this ritual [ed. we had just lit a candle in commemoration of the yartzeit of Roe v. Wade] we just participated in, you might find yourself asking, “what year is it?” or, as I have heard some of you say, “this feels like an alternate reality.”

Regardless of topic, we have all, at some time, felt that surreal disbelief of reality, whether it’s that weird feeling you get after a car accident, or when you’re experiencing extreme grief. Call it surreal or deja vu, we ask ourselves: Is this real life?

These feelings are not new. Even Plato and Plutarch hypothesized realities on top of our own, recognizing that humans, in our limitations, can only perceive so much of reality. Nowadays, the word en vogue is “multiverse.” The Marvel Cinematic Universe has one, so does the Oscar Nominated “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” The dictionary defines it as an infinite realm of being or potential being of which the universe we know is regarded as just one part or one instance.

Writer and artist S.I. Rosenbaum pondered the multiverse in a recent NYTimes opinion piece. They wrote: “It’s easy to see the appeal of the multiverse, even as metaphor: the notion that we’re surrounded by a multitude of parallel selves, one of which might be living in a better timeline than the one we’re stuck in. It’s probably no coincidence that the idea has become so popular during an era of pandemic, climate change and political turmoil, when so many of us have felt helpless and trapped. Who doesn’t want to imagine a different world?”

Lest you think this is relegated to our subjective psyches and sci-fi, many well known scientists and astrophysicists are proponents of the theory of the multiverse existing. There are opponents, though, who argue that one cannot test the multiverse theories with empirical evidence, and therefore the multiverse is more theory, or faith, than science.

Do we Jews have a multiverse concept? It would seem, yes, to a degree. Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin points out that:

“According to Kabbalah, all of existence can be divided into four worlds, known as Atzilut (World of Emanation), Beriah (World of Creation), Yetzirah (World of Formation) and Asiyah (World of Action—our world). Although they are referred to as worlds, in reality these aren’t separate planets or galaxies. Rather, they exist right here together with us, but in another plane of reality. Each of these worlds is really about the degree of Godliness that is revealed on each plane.”

When it comes down to it, we Jews do have a more precise term for the multiverse - we call it “God.” We call God “HaMakom,” The Place, the totality of all existences ever. God’s proper name is spelled yud-hey-vav-hey in Hebrew. We render this in English as “the Eternal,” because the root word of God’s name is the verb “to be.” Yud-hey-vav-hey can be past, present, or future, hence “Eternal.” All possibilities, all existence that was is and will be, parallel or intersecting - that is God.

Indeed, one of the critics of multiverse theory, Paul Davies, writes: “To be sure, all cosmologists accept that there are some regions of the universe that lie beyond the reach of our telescopes, but somewhere on the slippery slope between that and the idea that there is an infinite number of universes, credibility reaches a limit. As one slips down that slope, more and more must be accepted on faith, and less and less is open to scientific verification. Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence, it requires the same leap of faith.”

Indeed. And because we Jews understand God to be the ultimate mystery, the scientifically unprovable, our tradition stresses that we live in the World of Asiyah, of action, and must take action in a way that values our here and now and our behavior here and now above all else.

Rosenbaum makes a similar point. They are concerned about what a multiverse ideology means for human beings. They say that “we can joke or wonder whether we’re in the wrong timeline…But it can also be a dangerous way of imagining the cosmos…we risk becoming detached from the world we can see and touch. Regardless of whether we can prove that the multiverse exists, the idea of it can distract us from doing the work we need to do to make this world better. This timeline is the only one we have access to, and it’s got to be enough.”

And isn’t this the Jewish approach anyway? Isn’t this the root of our social action, our acts of teshuvah (repentance) and the compassion we show?

We do believe we can access the Divine, touching the multiversed cosmos. These are the moments when we feel like we have felt a holy space outside of ourselves, whether through prayer or in community. That feeling of transcendence and awe. It’s not scientific, but I know you’ve felt it, as have I. So while it remains unclear how much life may or may not be like the comics, we can keep reaching outward while keeping our feet securely on the ground, doing the work we need to do to make THIS WORLD one of justice and peace.

Ongoing Liberation: Rahab and Juneteenth

In July of 1985, The World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the “UN Decade for Women” took place in Nairobi. The reason the “achievements” of the prior conference needed to be “reviewed” were because there hadn’t really been any. Violence against women was still raging worldwide and real measures had to be taken by the international community. To open the conference the U.N. invited an Australian Aboriginal woman and activist named Lilla Watson.

Speaking to a room of delegates she stood at the podium and famously said, "If you are here to help women, people of color or people of different ethnicities, go home. You are wasting your time. However, if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

Her words have reverberated through the decades. If you ask her about it today, Watson does not like having these words attributed to her alone. She says they were an important sentiment expressed in her activist circles; the sentiments of many.

It is still the sentiment of modern liberation movements and it is important we express it again this Juneteenth weekend. When Juneteeth became a federal holiday, only 2 years ago, it entered the consciousness of every American. This makes it impossible to turn away from the history of slavery in our nation and impossible to turn away from the contributions and achievements of Black Americans. I’m gratified knowing that when my kids learn about Juneteenth in school, they learn about their role in the ongoing liberation of all oppressed people and the beauty of cultural diversity.

Furthermore, Juneteenth falls during the federal “Honor America Days” - the 21 days between Flag Day and the 4th of July. This is an important detail that emphasizes the holiday’s message. It is not enough to be a nation born out of the ideals of equality, we have to struggle to make those values real. Only then can we truly be a free nation, with the dignity of all citizens and residents asserted loudly.

These 21 days in the American calendar are sort of like our Jewish omer. You’ll remember the omer is the time between the Exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah at Mt Sinai. As we counted the omer, every day for 7 weeks, we stressed that freedom is yoked to responsibility to care for one another. Individuals can only truly be free when they live in a safe and just society. While people of color were liberated all those years ago, they still do not live in a safe and just society where they are truly free.

Therefore, as Jews, as people who understand the struggle for freedom, we must work for the betterment of our country. We also know that anti-semitism and racism are closely linked and tend to emerge together. We know that our destinies are indeed bound up with each other.

Victoria Raggs is the Co-Founder & Executive Director of Atlanta Jews of Color Council. In reflecting on the significance of Juneteenth as a Black woman and a Jew, she wrote:

“To me, Juneteenth is a time for rejoicing and a time for our country to reckon with a very painful historical legacy that continues to impact our society today. Gaining a deeper historical analysis around this national holiday is useful for everyone experiencing true equity, justice, and liberation. The Jewish dimension of Juneteenth is that no people exist in isolation. Because our liberation is bound together by our shared humanity, no group is free until we all are free.”

This was the essence of Lilla Watson’s words as well. Don’t enter this conversation as one who pities the oppressed. And don’t come in expecting to play savior. Come to the business of liberation recognizing that by lifting one another up, we raise all of humanity closer to the Divine - the origin point for each of us.

So many Jewish texts illustrate this point. But this week we get a particularly provocative one. It comes out of the haftarah portion: Joshua chapter 2. The story goes like this:

Before the Israelites cross the Jordan, Joshua sends Israelite men to scout out the land. Arriving in Jericho, they decide to spend the night at an inn owned by a Canaanite woman named Rahab. It might have also been a brothel. How do we know this? Well, when we meet Rahab, she is explicitly described as a “eishah zonah,” a prostitute.

When the king of Jericho hears that these Israelite men have entered the city and he demands that Rahab give up the spies. Yet in an act of defiance, Rahab hides them in the thatch of her roof. She lies to the king, saying the men had come to her home but then left.

Her ruse works and she goes up to have a chat with the Israelite spies. She says, “I know that GOD has promised this land to you. We heard about how God parted the Sea of Reeds for you, and how your enemies have been defeated in your journey.” And then she pledges: “I will show loyalty to you and your God.” With that heartfelt pledge, she asks that when the spies return with the Israelite army to take over Jericho, they will spare her life and the lives of her father and mother, as well as her brothers and sisters. The spies swear to spare them.

Rahab then helps them escape through the window and indeed, the spies make good on their promise. Rahab and her family join forces with the Israelites after they return to Jericho.

Now to be clear, I’m not looking to draw strict parallels here, as they would quickly break down and could be pretty problematic.

What I want to do is draw attention to Rahab specifically because we can learn a lot from who she was and what she heroically chose to do.

As biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky points out, Rahab is a triply marginalized person—Canaanite, woman, and prostitute. Yet she moves from the margins to the center of the narrative “as bearer of a divine message and herald of Israel in its new land.”

We have to ask, why does Rahab choose to help the spies, and by extension, the Israelite nation? It’s not just simple self-preservation. She tells us in her own words: she’s seen the miracles. She sees the struggle of the recently freed Israelites fighting to make new, liberated lives for themselves.

As a marginalized person, she understands that her own liberation is bound up in saving the lives of the spies, and thus allowing the Israelites to fulfill their destiny while also solidifying hers. Frymer-Kensky encourages us to move past our squeamishness of Rahab’s profession and understand the deep compassion and activism within her that leads her to righteous action.

So how may we be like Rahab? How may we see that we must work together, oppressed and marginalized people, to protect one another, to shelter each other, and help one another to escape danger?

No one person or group exists in isolation. Lifting one another up only raises the moral bar higher. This Juneteenth, by the example of the African-American community, may we celebrate, educate, and agitate for the deliverance of all humankind. Amen.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

This Little Light of Mine - MLK Shabbat 2023

 “This Little Light of Mine” can be heard from nurseries to protests; classrooms to rallies. It was the anthem of the Civil Rights era and serves today in a similar capacity. 

But it feels like more than a rallying cry, though. At this point in history, it’s essentially a psalm; a prayer with the power to motivate as well as heal.

I’ll give you an example. Just a few years back, NPR reported that:

 “In 2017, Reverend Osagyefo Sekou used "This Little Light of Mine" to curb passions during a counter-protest, [he stood] before a crowd of white supremacists and alt-right supporters gathered for the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. "We had originally said we were going to stand silently," says Rev. Sekou, a recording artist, author, theologian and activist who helped train volunteers at the counter-protest. "But the Nazis were marching past us in these various battalions, cursing and yelling — mostly homophobic slurs — at us. And you could feel the energy of the people who weren't with us, who we had not trained. [They] were getting amped up."

Sekou says he knew, in that moment, he had to change the atmosphere. "I know song can do that. So I just broke into 'This Little Light of Mine.'”

…the clergy and volunteers who sang…[were] standing in a line, their voices rising over the chants of "You will not replace us" from the rally crowd. "The tensions went down ... and it shook the Nazis," Sekou says. "They didn't know what to do with all that joy. We weren't going to let the darkness have the last word."

Jewish tradition is familiar with song as a shield, disarming words of hate with poems of joy. This is why we pass songs from generation to generation - Hebrew trope, prayer nusach, any melody - traditional and modern. We teach these songs to our children not just for archiving, but because they are vehicles for connection and healing. When there is a birth - we sing. When there is a death - we sing. Even in the death camps - we sang.

Throughout the generations, if we weren’t singing “This Little Light of Mine,” we were singing something like it. Or Zarua la’tzadik - light is sown for the righteous…Light One Candle for the Maccabee children…simply blessing the lights of Shabbat every week is an act of love and an act of defiance. Think about it…all these millenia later, our people are still pausing time every Friday evening to kindle two tiny lights. In the thickest darkness, the flames of the Sabbath candles pierce through with the light hope. It is a testament to the eternal light of God entrusted to our people centuries ago, meant to be shared far and wide for as long as we can muster the courage to do it.

I think you’ll agree with me that the voices of our young people tonight act in a similar vein. What a testament to Dr. King’s legacy to see the next generation engaging thoughtfully with the political process - standing up for the poor, shining a light on the forgotten, holding a light up to hate?

We can’t talk about the next generation tonight without invoking one of the most famous lines from King’s I Have A Dream speech. You know it:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

And, similarly, there’s: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

The poetry and the imagery here is powerful. Yet it is also easily mis-understood as a call to erasing difference. I do not think that Dr. King’s call is for colorblindness. 

More precisely, he’s preaching for the leveling of roadblocks and the removal of social and economic impediments. He’s preaching to actively raise up the downtrodden and to expressly invite in the marginalized. 

He’s asking for the self-reflection and humility of those who hold positions of wealth and power, so that all the children in each new generation are afforded the same opportunities to grow and reach their potential.

For sure, he is dreaming of a future where racism and poverty are eradicated. Where the children of the next generation will not experience the hardships of our own. And while we work for that, it is our responsibility to empower these same young people and encourage them to take up the torch of justice and carry it forward. 

Our job - us adults - is to pave the road and then get out of the way. It is our job to teach them the songs, to train them in the skills, to inspire them, and then…this is really important…to listen when they begin to speak (even if what they have to say scares us at first).

In addition to King, God acts as our role model this week. The haftarah reading comes from the first chapter of Jeremiah. We hear God’s initial call to the prophet: 

“Before I created you in the womb, I selected you;

Before you were born, I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations!”

And Jeremiah replies, “Who, me?! הִנֵּ֥ה לֹֽא־יָדַ֖עְתִּי דַּבֵּ֑ר כִּי־נַ֖עַר אָנֹֽכִי God, I don’t know how to speak, I am just a kid!”

And God replies, “Do not say, ‘I am just a kid.’ Get up, go where I tell you to go, say what I tell you to say. Don’t be scared because I am with you!”

And then God reaches out and touched Jeremiah’s mouth, saying: 

“Here…I put My words into your mouth.

See, I appoint you this day

Over nations and kingdoms:

To uproot and to pull down,

To destroy and to overthrow [that which is wicked],

To build and to plant [a better future].”

And that is the beginning of Jeremiah’s prophetic journey.

We have given the children of our community the stories, the words, and the songs. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement have given them the values, and in the case of Dr. King, their lives.

We can honor Dr King’s legacy most by dedicating ourselves to empowering the next generation through seminars, stories and songs. We can continue to build up a world of truth and justice while also slowly letting go and entrusting it to them.

As we walked up the Capitol steps with our temple teens, I had an out of body experience. Just 2 years ago, a mob of rioters descreated those very same steps, forcing their way into the halls of Congress - shouting words of violence, leaving trash and dishonor in their wake. 

I looked over at our teens. They were dressed professionally, with carefully researched presentations in hand,  respectfully climbing the marble and entering the building. This was democracy. This was the next generation staking their claim and declaring their dreams. This was the America we believe in.

God of our ancestors - l’dor vador, nagid godlecha - from generation to generation, we will tell of Your greatness. We will sing of your hopes and dreams for humanity - those songs you taught to our forebears and were sung by the prophets. We will continue to break the chains of oppression while linking together the bonds of freedom and fellowship. This is the chain of love that we envision tonight. That is the dream we, and our children, commit ourselves to this evening.