Angels At A Distance

Our service begins with welcoming. We welcome each other with a Shabbat Shalom. We welcome the Shabbat bride as we rise with respect with a bow left and right. We welcome the Shabbat angels into our presence.

Shalom Aleichem – Welcome

Malachei Hasharet -Angels of God’s squad

Malachei Elyon – Angels from High

We ask them to come join us

Boachem L’Shalom

To bless us

Barchuni L’Shalom

And to leave us with their work completed

Tzeitchem L’Shalom

Some of us feel the spirit of angelic presence through the words and music. For others this concept is more distant. Can there really be angels? Are we to understand these images literally?

Yet whether we are within the spiritual moment of the melody or we are spiritually struggling, we understand the song’s intent – it is about asking angels to touch our lives.

Around sixteen years ago I walked into a welcoming community as their new rabbi. I moved into my Associate Rabbi’s office in Boca Raton. The walls had been painted post-it yellow as I had requested, but my boxes had yet to arrive and be unpacked. The pale gray shelves and desk looked a little empty… except for the top shelf. On the very top, a teddy bear sitting staring down at me, the rooms new inhabitant.

My first thought was: I wonder what child left this bear behind? Whom do I return it too? I went to my Senior Rabbi, bear in hand showing him what had been left “by accident” on my empty shelves.

He told me a story:

South Florida  was reeling from the impact of Hurricane Andrew, an event 24 years ago this week. The like of this hurricane was devastation unexperienced. 25,000 homes were destroyed in Miami-Dade County and 100,000 more were damaged. Mile after mile of the area around Homestead had been flattened.

When it was deemed safe enough to traverse the roads, the clergy of Temple Beth El had gotten into their cars and driven south. Hoping to be angels. Hoping to be able to find ways on the ground to be of help.

The devastation they witnessed, for those of you who remember the pictures, was beyond words. Homes turned to rubble. Power lines down. The wind had whisked away lives and livelihood.

On the road, in the middle of nowhere, they pulled up their car. Sitting in the middle of the asphalt was a teddy bear. No child or home in proximity to return it too. They brought that bear back with them, as a reminder of the  precariousness of life, placing it on the top shelf, on what was to become my rabbinic office.

They had hoped in their drive to find some way to be of assistance. When we hear of disaster, many of us have the same thought:  how can we can be angels? What can we do when an earthquake kills as in Italy or when rains pour down and destroy in Baton Rouge?

The task of providing angelic help seems easy when we are close in proximity to the disaster zone.

Last year, my rabbinate took me as an interim to Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia, South Carolina. I was just becoming acquainted with the community at-large over Rosh HaShanah  and Yom Kippur. Sukkot was coming. It started to rain. One day of rain you think nothing of it. The meal in the Sukkah became the meal in the Social Hall.

But then it continued to rain. And rain. And rain. And rain. Each and every day through Sukkot. It came down in sheets. The ground became mud beyond mud, slush beyond slush. It continued to pour. A once in a thousand-year flood.

The synagogue was vulnerable as between two dams, it had a history of flooding. Suddenly my interim rabbinic year was in the middle of a disaster zone. The  synagogue miraculously was spared destruction but at the cost of people’s homes and places of business.

However, the building became our cloud to be angels in heaven. It allowed us as a congregation to be active because of our proximity to the disaster. We cooked Spaghetti Dinners for those who were displaced by water and destruction, we packed lunches for those who were working for disaster relief. We helped distribute water. We gathered household items to distribute to those in need.

Easy on the ground.

However, our desire to be angels can feel impossible when we are so far away. How can our angelic wings, our angelic intentions stretch across the miles to help? And more than that, it seems like we hear of a disaster every other day in news. Explosions in Lyon. Syria. Afghanistan. We want to be angels – but can we extend ourselves everywhere?

Bleeding hearts that reach out all the time to everyone, are in the danger of bleeding out. If we extend ourselves too much, our impact is less, or our intention to help is overwhelmed. We must find a way to ensure that our bleeding hearts do not destroy us, and have us leave the intention of angelic action.

But how do we choose where to focus our angelic wings? Where do we start? This week’s Torah portion tells us:

“You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19)

The word for stranger in Hebrew is “Ger”. However, we are not actually told to reach out to strangers. A Ger is someone you are acquainted with, someone you already know, one who is connected to your circle in some way. Our Torah portion tells us to begin with those who dwell among our community. We are commanded to make an impact in our little part of the world. We are given a place to start our angelic work and to circumvent the attitude of burn-out.

This week the Union for Reform Judaism sent out a blog authored by Anna Herman, director of URJ Jacob’s Camp in Mississippi. As Reform Jews, we are connected one to the other through values and beliefs and attitudes of Jewish practice. Let me share with you some of Anna Herman’s  words. This week she is an angel on the ground.

As we began to hear from our extended camp mishpacha (family) in the area, we knew we needed to get to Baton Rouge as soon as we could.

We began by contacting the presidents of the two Reform congregations in the area. They told us they’d spent the previous days compiling spreadsheets of which of their members had been most severely impacted, which meant they could quickly point us toward the families in need of support. …

At least 30 Jewish families have lost their homes, and many more face damage to their homes, cars, and other property.

She appeals to us, her squad of Reform Jewish angels to help her in her mission. How far can our angel wings stretch to help those 30 Jewish families? We may not know them personally, but through our Reform Jewish community these strangers are our Gerim. We know them. We are them.

Anna has made some concrete suggestions for us that I wish to share with you as I encourage you to help. Ways that the tips of your angel wings might cross to just one disaster amongst so many.

  • Donate:The Jewish Federation of Greater Baton Rouge is collecting funds to help local Jewish families start rebuilding their lives.
  • Volunteer: NECHAMA, a nonprofit organization that provides natural disaster response and recovery services, is seeking volunteers to help on the ground in Baton Rouge. Volunteer to join them.

Their are links to she provides in her blog to help. They are like the angels of art; on a cloud. You can find them on the Union’s website, on my Facebook page with Anna’s article, or send me an email through the virtual heavens and I would be happy to provide them.

Welcome – Shalom Aleichem

Angels of God’s squad –  Malachei Hasharet

Angels from High – Malachei Elyon

This week, find your inner angel, extend your wing tip across the miles to touch a life in need of help…

Boachem L’Shalom – Come join us

Barchuni L’Shalom – Create Blessing

Tzeitchem L’Shalom – And let us leave the world a little more complete.


On the Journey for Justice

How is this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, like a sheep?

Hm. Perhaps I am racing ahead a bit…

Let me tell you a true story.

Last Monday I literally ran out of the office.

I had spent the whole day calendaring with our Interim Educator  and I was late, very late, for a very important date! I felt a little overdressed with somewhere to go. I took one look at the sun belting down as I got into my car… and thought to myself: “I should have packed sunscreen and brought a bottle of water – oh, well!” as I then drove the fifteen minutes downtown to the grounds of the South Carolina State House.

The reason: I had just received word that weekend that America’s Journey for Justice had been re-routed from Charlotte to Columbia and this area was to be an anchor city for four days of the march. Rabbi Marcus and Rabbi Doberne-Shorr were marching as well as many other Carolinian colleagues and rabbis from around the country. The very least I could do was spend an hour in Tikkun Olam/repairing the world work, along with these my colleagues in my temporary “home-town”.

But perhaps I am racing ahead on the journey of telling you this story.

Let me back up some.

At the beginning of this summer, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, the Union for Reform Judaism’s social action and lobbying arm announced that Reform Jews, Rabbis and Youth would have the opportunity to march with the National Association for the Advancement of Color People on America’s Journey for Justice. This historic journey, an 860 mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC, is designed to mobilize activists and place focus on the national advocacy agenda for the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education. At the State House, they were just readying to surpass 500 miles of their trek. In every state that the journeyers visit… a different social issue is focused on.[i]

In the Torah portions of last week, this week, and next week, almost every few verses a different social issue is focused on. Last week, Shoftim, this week Ki Tetze and next week, Ki Tavo, like this Journey for Justice, focus on the laws to make a society fair, equable, safe and well run. Beginning with the emphatic words of Shoftim “Justice, justice you shall pursue”[ii], the laws notated in our three Torah portions deal with in Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s, phraseology:  “the social weal.”

In amongst the many laws of these three Torah sections we find commandments on issues as far and wide as fair economics, murder, the rules of war, the rebellious son, how to deal with the criminal, maintaining good societal boundaries, physical hygiene, charging interest, fulfilling vows and much, nuch more for the well running of a fair society.

We also find one really strange law that the rabbis have puzzled over for centuries. This is the law of sha’atnez. “You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen.”[iii]

Commentators have asked many hard questions about this law. Why are we not allowed to wear wool and linen together? The rabbis called this rule a Chok, a specific type of rule that is there for no apparent reason. As the 11th century commentator Rabbi Shlomo bar Yitzchak, RASHI, wrote: “What is this command? What logic is there to it?” Why can’t we wear linen and wool together? There is no reason, or no reason that we are capable of grasping.

Now, just because we don’t know “why”  in Jewish tradition, does not mean that commentators have not tried to ascertain some logic.

Which brings me back to my sheep.

The Kabbalists, the mystics of Judaism suggest that at the end of days, when the world is of an elevated consciousness, there will also be a radical change to the state of animals, who will evolve into an intellectual state similar to that of current humans. With that in mind, the commentator Rav Avraham Isaac Kook wrote at the end of the nineteenth century:

“Man, in his boundless egocentricity, approaches the poor cow and sheep. From one he seizes its milk, and from the other, its fleece…. There would be no impropriety in taking the wool were the sheep burdened by its load; but we remove the wool when its natural owner needs it. Intellectually, we recognize that this is a form of theft — oppression of the weak at the hands of the strong.”[iv]

In the time to come, when animals consciousness is raised, Rav Kook suggests that we will need to be able to distinguish between the difference of wool and linen. Linen taken from the flax plant will not impoverish the plant. But fleecing the sheep, will take from the animal something it needs.

Whether we buy into the notion that the consciousness of animals will be elevated at the end of days, or the analogy that Rav Kook makes to try to understand why wool and linen cannot be worn together,  does not matter. The essential lesson that Rav Kook is teaching is similar to the message that those marching on America’s Journey for Justice are trying to convey.  In our society, it is a form of theft, when we oppress the weak at the hands of the strong.

We fleece fellow Americans when they must work long hours but are unable to make a living wage.

We fleece fellow Americans when they do not have access to bulk stores like Sam’s Club or Costco, where only the rich can shop, because transportation will not take those of lesser economic circumstance out of the neighborhood, where only expensive mom and pop stores provide the essentials of life.

We fleece fellow Americans when their children do not have access to the same educational  opportunities that the kids in richer neighborhoods are given.

We fleece ourselves as s society when these children do not have the education tools, such as paper, text books, computers, that will stretch their thinking to be the best it can be.

We fleece fellow Americans when they are given longer sentences because of the color of their skin and nationality for similar offences to white people.

We fleece fellow Americans when they do not have the same access to voting rights.

When I ran out of the office last Monday, the words of last week’s Torah portion and this week’s Torah portion were ringing in my ears. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” The Social Weal needs to be fair and equitable. What am I, a Jewish leader, doing to make it happen? What are we as Jewish individuals doing to make it happen? What are we as a Jewish community doing to make it happen?

As people of privilege, it is easy for us to sit comfortably in our home and our synagogue and just talk the talk of justice. The Journey for Justice, was walking the walk, in the hope that footsteps would be heard and echoed throughout the land. Their steps and voices will grow louder as they get closer to the Washington Mall. Their steps and voices will grow louder as we amplify their story in the press and pulpit, in our homes and on our ways.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of that historic march 50 years ago as “praying with his feet.” Last Monday I witnessed Blacks, Jews and others, journeying, praying with their feet. Let us pray with our feet, our hands, our minds, our heart, our determination, that we too can be involved in some small or large way in our lives, in making for a more equitable and fair society.  Living up to the words of Torah, perpetuating the Jewish legacy of justice for us and for the society we live in.

And let us say… Amen.


[ii] Deut 16:20

[iii] Deut 22:11

[iv] Otzarot HaRe’iyah vol. II, p. 97