Friday, October 20, 2017

Shabbat Noah: Love and Language

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Noah. It contains the story of the Flood and the Ark, as well as the story of the Tower of Babel. Given their proximity, the rabbis of the classical midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) ask, “Why was the generation of the Flood utterly destroyed, but not the generation of the Tower? Because the generation of the Flood were consumed by robbery and violence, while amongst the generation of the Tower, love prevailed.” Yet, we know that the generation of the Tower were also guilty of some misdeed that upset God, causing their tower to collapse and their languages to be warped, and community to be scattered.  
            Maybe it is worth asking: what was the love that prevailed in the generation of the Tower? What was their one tongue saying? I heard another midrash from a colleague yesterday, though he didn't attribute it, so I'm not sure where he got it from. He said that while the people of what would become Babel built up the tower, they were so frenzied about the project, that if a brick fell from the heights of the tower in process, they would be devastated to have lost a building tool. But if a person fell, they didn't care, because since everyone was of one mind, they all knew someone else would step in immediately and there was no loss to the building project.
            If the generation of the Tower was consumed with love for the Tower, or the project, or the name they were making for themselves, without regard for the sanctity of life, then it would explain why they merited the destruction of their project and the scattering of their community. But if they weren’t actively violent, pushing each other off the tower, stealing each other’s building tools, consumed with making a greater name for each self rather than the collective, then it stands to reason that they could not be considered as evil as the generation of the Flood, who was said to have acted really cruelly and to have committed grotesque crimes.
            In theory, the idea of all speaking one language, both literally and figuratively, being all of one mind for a singular group project, sounds like a great community. But if that group endeavor leads to individuals being forgotten or uncared for, to the point where they could slip off the tower and nobody sought to save them or mourn them, then it is actually quite troubling. It feels reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, or any number of great novels. On the surface of the story, the society is a utopia. Everyone gets along, the greater good is always considered, and everyone is determined to work together toward a common goal. But as soon as one character looks a little deeper, or voices concerns, it turns out that the world in which they live is actually quite dystopian. Everyone seems as if they are all of one mind, because their minds are being controlled or because they have simply been made too afraid to speak out.  There wouldn’t be so many stories of such societies across generations and continents if it wasn’t a real concern people have.
That concern can manifest in many different ways. It’s not always an oppressive dystopian governmental body controlling people’s brains that can cause the effect of a singular language among people who secretly all know something is wrong. While it’s nice to get along with our neighbors, sometimes it is worth asking ourselves when the time has come to speak up. Sometimes bad things, especially hurtful words, are allowed to be perpetuated because it would be too uncomfortable or considered confrontational to call someone out on their offensive behavior, and then the person in question continues to behave oppressively because they think that everyone else in their position or who shares an identity or experience with them agrees with their offensive stance on those of a different identity or experience.    
Please, this week as we keep in mind the dangers of being of a singular language, listen carefully to the language you hear around you, and if you hear things you know you shouldn’t, call it out. Do not stand idly by bigoted or abusive words, for words can lead to actions, and actions can lead to much greater communal fractures than dissent might. Do not wait until God descends to see the Tower of arrogance and scatters the community completely. Speak out and stand up, and may your own voice be heard by all. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.   

Friday, October 6, 2017

Shabbat Sukkot

Shabbat Shalom!

I hope your New Year celebrations were sweet, your fasting safe, your atoning meaningful. We're not quite done with these fall holidays, though!

Tonight is Shabbat Sukkot. During Sukkot, we read the words of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes. Kohelet is said to have been King Solomon, who despite his wealth, land, grand palace, many wives and consorts, travels, the glory of building the Temple, etc., was depressed and saw no meaning to life. In the book of Kohelet, he seems to mourn the endless cycle of life and nature. Nothing lasts or holds, the world goes on turning no matter what we do, and eventually everything new becomes old, and the old becomes new again. There is nothing originally under the sun.

Pete Seeger took these words and spun them in a positive light. Yes, it's true, the dent each of us individually makes on the Earth is fairly small. But, that means anything we feel guilty or embarrassed about is also not as bad as it feels! And it means that the difference we make in our own circles are as meaningful as we make them. If things feel bad now, don't worry - you can still turn it around!

We read these words on Sukkot as we live in temporary huts, remember our ancestors escaping Egypt without secure housing, and appreciate with gratitude the bounty we enjoy in our own lives. It's a harvest festival, enjoy the fruits of the Earth, while remembering a time when our ancestors survived on Manna that they constantly worried would cease to fall from Heaven day by day. Like with fasting on Yom Kippur, which propels us toward breaking chains of oppression and feeding those who are hungry all year round, the Sukkah should also remind us of those who do not live in secure homes as regularly as most of us do. Some may live on the streets, or bouncing from shelter to shelter. Some may live in warm houses with four walls, but live in fear from domestic abuse (October is also Domestic Abuse Awareness Month: Sukkot reminds us that everything is temporary, and there but for the grace of HaShem go I.

If you live in secure and safe housing the rest of the year, consider this the right time to go volunteer at a shelter, a food pantry, to open your home to a friend or neighbor in need, to donate to your local Picture The Homeless-type organization or a domestic abuse survivor's org. If you are not in a position to do any one those things, hang in there. Know that things change, sometimes abruptly, and you will see brighter days ahead.

May the time and season for peace, comfort, and safety be upon us all this Sukkot.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom Kippur: Nitzavim and Sieze the Day

            Shabbat Shalom and gut yontif. I hope your fast is moving along safely. You should be feeling some hunger pains by now and allowing the discomfort remind you of the discomfort you make have inflicted on others in the last year, the discomfort of the hungry you have looked away from, and thinking about how this feeling will shape your teshuvah for the year to come. However, if you feel like you are going to pass out at any time today, please eat or drink something, and/or rest in one of our empty classrooms. I’ll be here all day, and I promise you can rejoin whenever you’re ready. Your teshuvah will still be counted.
            This reminder is important, as sometime we allow the Yom Kippur liturgy and the importance of the day cloud our judgement, or we allow perceived judgements from others whose bodies are able to withstand fasting differently to make us feel guilty. Those who are here doing true teshuvah, those who fast in some way even if you are not able to deprive your body of food for the day, will still be written in the Book of Life. One of the central prayers of Yom Kippur is the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die” poem with all it’s possible outcomes for the year. It invokes a feeling of doomsday upon this day, and while some sentiment of that is helpful in connecting with our guilt and our atonement, I don’t want anyone to feel that they should actually risk meeting our Maker for the sake of this day.
            In his book The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven,” Dr. Ron Wolfson writes that U’netaneh Tokef has always been the most moving part of the whole body of high holy day liturgy for him, even as a child. Imagining the scene of judgement alluded to in the poem, young Ron would picture it like a courtroom drama such as he might see on TV, except instead of a human judge and jury, God and the angels filled the courtroom, while each of us hearing the prayer simultaneously stand alone before them, facing judgement. What sort of questions might the Judge ask to determine if you should be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the year to come?
            In the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the fourth century safe Rava said that when a person gets to heaven they are first asked, “Were you honest in business?” Dr. Wolfson reports in his book discovering this piece of text and being shocked that the ancient rabbis would believe God would ask about common business before assessing the person’s faith and regularity of prayer. Of course, dedication to prayer and Torah study are also in the list of five questions Rava believes will be asked, but they come after honesty with other humans.
Besides the five questions Rava provides, Dr. Wolfson adds two more to the list from modern Jewish thinkers. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the first Modern Orthodox philosopher, thought God’s question would be, “Did you see my Alps?” By this, he means, did you make the most out of your life, did you see the wonders of the world, did you appreciate the beauty of nature? If you spend all your time only in the synagogue, asking God to make miracles for you, you will never have the chance to appreciate the miracles God has already created. Martin Buber, influential 19th century philosopher, suggested the question upon reaching heaven would be, “Why were you trying to be Moses? Why were you not you?” Similar to Hirsch, Buber is also suggesting something to the effect of making the most of your life. Though it is lacking the framework of appreciating natural miracles, just as Hirsch thought we should go out and achieve all the travels on our “bucket lists”, Buber seems to be saying, we should be sure to check off our spiritual bucket list as well. Did we say all that we wanted to say in life? Did we teach our most honest Torah? Did we let our best and truest selves shine through, even when it seemed like others wanted us to conform to some other idea of who we were supposed to be?
I can appreciate why Dr. Wolfson would be surprised by these questions, but I am not at all surprised. Though they are not framed as questions about God, faith, or seemingly the fullest assessments of our lives, they check off the most important values. How did we live? Were we honest, to ourselves and others? Did we appreciate what we had, and took opportunities to appreciate more? Did we live this life in this life, being human and realistic, or did we keep an eye on the world to come all our years, being so preoccupied with avoiding mistakes that we never made gains either?
            In this morning’s Torah reading, we read the words “[the Torah] is not in heaven, Lo Bashamayim Hi.” Moses is telling the people of Israel, poised to enter the promised land, that each of them have access to God’s teachings, and each of them will be expected to uphold God’s law. In the eyes of God, every human is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Divine image, and thus is equally responsible for upholding the commandments, equally deserving of God’s love. In another section of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59), the earliest rabbis argue about the kashrut of an oven. Rabbi Eliezer believes the oven in question is Kosher. The other rabbis are not sure. Eliezer says, "If the law is as I say, let this carob tree prove it." The tree suddenly uprooted itself and flew about the length of a football field. The Sages, unimpressed, commented that a proof of Jewish law cannot be brought from a carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer continued, "If the law is as I say, let this stream of water prove it," at which point the stream began to flow uphill! Again, his fellow rabbis were unconvinced. So Rabbi Eliezer continued, "If the law is as I say, let the walls of this study hall prove it." Suddenly, the walls began to cave in. Finally, a voice from heaven calls out, “Why must you continue to argue with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is as he says!” And the sages reply, “The Law is not in heaven, Lo Bashamayim Hi.” The heavenly voice laughed and said, “My children have defeated me!” And the law was decided according to the consensus of all the other rabbis.
            It may or may not have been so honest of the rabbis to insist upon their way when the forces of God and nature clearly agreed with Eliezer, but it illustrates that Torah is not in heaven, and neither should our concerns be. God, Torah, reward, bereavement, atonement, amends, all these things exist here on Earth with us. We can’t ever really know who is written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death, we may never know what will happen tomorrow, and Judaism is a bit vague or argumentative with itself about what comes next. What we do know is that here and now, we can live by the guidelines of God’s teaching. To act in righteousness, to go about our daily business honestly and with an open heart, to appreciate and care for the natural world, to be ourselves fully. By doing these things, we can ensure we are being our best selves, and upholding Torah in this world. Because that is where it belongs. Lo Bashamayim Hi.

Kol Nidre, what tomorrow brings

            Good Yontif. I hope everyone is having a safe and meaningful fast so far. May these next 24 hours bring you peace, a cleansed soul, and a satisfied spirit. It’s good to see so many of you here this evening. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the way Yom Kippur tugs at the hearts and souls of even some very unobservant Jews. Every year, I think about those who never attend Shabbat services or observe Jewish law in their homes, but fast and/or come to services on Yom Kippur. Nothing feels as quintessentially Jewish to me as the ending to the original Jazz Singer, where Al Jolsen’s character is torn between following his dream of performing in his jazz show and following his family and heritage to sing Kol Nidre in place of his ailing father. He ultimately chooses the latter, but is still able to salvage his career, and the movie has a happy ending. He can have it all. How many of us feel constantly torn between the demands of secular life, dictated by Christian hegemony in the United States, and our spiritual desires? How often do we choose the former out of convenience or because we feel like we simply have no choice? How could we better find the balance between the two? Can we, too, have it all?
            These questions, among others, were raised for me and my fellow social justice-minded observant Jewish friends when news broke of a March for Racial Justice happening tomorrow. The main march is happening here in DC tomorrow, though other sister marches have been planned in other cities around the country. Once the organizers learned that September 30th this year was Yom Kippur and that they had hurt many, many people who would otherwise have supported their march, they sought to ensure that at least the sister marches could occur on other dates, but so much had already been planned for the flagship march, and the protest permit calendar here in DC fills up so quickly, that there was really no option to move the DC march. Tomorrow, while we are all praying, fasting, and cleansing our souls, thousands of people (presumably) will be marching through the streets of our nearest major city, demanding greater racial equality in this country of freedom.
            Obviously, this oversight was, as I said, very hurtful to many Jews who would have otherwise attended such a march. Some people let their anger overtake them, lashed out, and were completely unforgiving to the march organizers. I understand that feeling. So often, our holidays are overlooked and dismissed. Our employers or teachers refuse to allow for absences or extensions and excuse this violation of anti-discrimination laws with flippant, “Oh but you just have so many” comments. So when even other interfaith social justice minded groups, who claim to be about liberation for all of us, behave in this ignorant manner, it’s heartbreaking.
            However, some folks were able to rise above that feeling. Directors of Jewish social justice organizations and prominent Black Jews reached out to the March for Racial Justice organizers and discussed the matter. As a result, the march organizers released a statement that really communicated heartfelt teshuvah. It was an honest apology, an explanation of why the DC march could not be changed but an assurance that the sister marches would be more accessible for Jewish participants, and a promise that they would never make such a mistake again. It included a commitment to work together, an acknowledgement that wedges between Black and Jewish communities only serves white supremacy and erases the experiences of Black Jews. And it explained in part why September 30th had been chosen in the first place.
            Now, I don’t really live my life by the Jewish calendar, and I’m guessing none of you do either. That’s why we feel that tension I mentioned earlier between “American” life and “Jewish” life. I know that Yom Kippur is on the 10th of Tishrei every year, but I still have to look at a calendar in the Spring to think ahead and know exactly when that will be. It is not always September 30th, and if even rabbis and committed Jews need to double check when it falls, it’s not super reasonable to expect that non-Jews will immediately know when it will fall. Of course, Google is free, and almost all calendars have Jewish holidays on them, and Yom Kippur is always in the mid-fall. I have certainly been frustrated at non-Jews’ seeming inability to check for these things before scheduling major events that might affect some of us on our holy days.
            September 30th, on the other hand, is always the anniversary of the Elaine Massacre. On September 30th, 1919, approximately 100 Black sharecroppers gathered in a church in Elaine, AR to discuss plans for demanding fairer pay for their labor and their cotton. During the meeting, a car full of white men pulled up to antagonize the Black guards posted in front of the church. No one knows who shot first, but a shootout erupted in front, and one white deputy was killed. The next morning, the county sheriff sent out a troupe to investigate the violence. Although the vast majority of residents of Elaine were non-violent, and just wanted equal rights to assemble and fair working conditions, the sheriff categorized the events of the evening before as “an insurrection,” and the U.S. Department of War sent actual soldiers to help the local police kill civilians in the town. Exact numbers of the massacre were not recorded, but reports at the time estimated around 200 African-Americans were killed, men, women, and children. An approximately equal number of Black men were also arrested, mostly as conspirators and accomplices to the so-called “insurrection”. Some were sentenced to death, some were sentenced to over 20 years in prison; some of the sentences were carried out, and some were overturned. All of the juries were exclusively white, and were praised for restraining themselves from explicitly lynching any of the arrested men.
For almost one hundred years, September 30th has remained constant on the American calendar as the date of an act of large scale racist violence and yet I did not know. This is why the March for Racial Justice was set for this day. Though we can feel disappointed that none of the organizers thought to check a calendar or the internet, knowing that our high holy days are always this time of year, if we are to feel ire at them for that, we must also feel contrite for our own ignorance. We can take this opportunity to learn about this and other such important dates. So many lynchings and acts of violence in our nation’s history, so much teshuvah to still do, and we don’t even know about a lot of it. Toward the end of their apology letter, march organizers state: “We are marching in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters who are observing the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance, in the face of growing antisemitism. We recognize and lift up the intersection of antisemitism and racism perpetrated by white supremacists … and we recognize the need for all of us to work together.”  
As Jews, we must also recognize this intersection and be willing to acknowledge our own similar missteps. As we approach this final stretch of the Days of Awe, I know I will be thinking about how my teshuvah can make me a better ally to other oppressed groups, and how I can advocate strongly but with sensitivity for other oppressed groups to be allies for us Jewish people. I encourage you to think on that as well. Where are the gaps in your knowledge of America’s racial injustices, and what can you do to make up for them? Where have you let injustice against yourself or another slide because you just weren’t sure how to speak up? Where have you exacerbated a difficult situation because you let your own anger cloud your sensitivity? How can we balance our Judaism and our responsibilities toward others? They aren’t easy questions to ask yourself, and there are no easy answers. But it’s Yom Kippur, the time for that difficult and painful introspection. May your final hours of teshuvah be meaning and thorough, and your year ahead be one of sweet coexisting. Amen and g’mar chatima tova.