Goodness in Our Time
Posted on November 12, 2019 Leave a Comment
My husband Richard informs me that whatever I say on this Shabbat, it should be about the Washington National’s win of the World Series!
My inner response was: Really? I know nothing about baseball! Fashion, yes. Baseball, no.
Then I responded: I am not sure it has anything to do with what I said my sermon topic would be.
But Richard’s opinion and sentiment, was very strong on this matter, so, as Tim Gunn would say on “Project Runway”: I am going to “Make it work!”
Richard, having spent most of his career in DC; and being a fan of non-contact sports, such as baseball, is as has become clear in the last month, a fan of the Nationals. As I discovered in the last two weeks, he even paid full-price years ago at the Sports Store, for official merchandise Washington National’s Baseball Caps, one for him and one for his son Aaron. Yes, he has two of them! You should ask him later, to see the adorable picture of the dog and him wearing baseball caps and watching the game.
I think, it never came up in our relationship before, because, well, to say it bluntly: the Nats are not your classic winning team. They are one of two teams, in major baseball leagues, who had never, until this week, won The World Series. But this year, recruiting, other strong moves in their farm system, and good coaching led to an incredible season. The Washington Nationals, went from being team-underdog, to playing the Houston Astros in The World Series, winning an unprecedented four away located games, in what, I am told, was fantastic baseball.
So now. I will make it work. The Washington Nationals went from being not good enough, to being very good in their time!
Noah, our Torah portions tells us, was good in his time, he was an “Ish Tzadik Tamim Hayah B’doratav” – a righteous and pure man in his generation.
Rashi, the essential Jewish commentator, informs us, that some sages believe these words were in praise of Noah. He was a good man. That in a corrupt time, he displayed righteousness and purity, and that this trait of goodness would be a standout, relative to any time he lived in. Basically, Noah was a good chap in any context.
Rashi, also brings the opinion of those who disagree with that view. Some sages believe that Noah was good only in the context of his own time. If he had lived in a less corrupt age, such as Abraham’s generation, his goodness would not have stood out as anything special.[i]
So, is the trait of goodness only measured in its context? Or, is the trait of goodness a constant?
After our last Shabbat together, I had the chance to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC and spent time in the three-levels of the history galleries. For those of you who have been there – the exhibition is thought provoking. I was struck initially by the color blindness of slavery pre 1400, and how it changed and developed into an industry based on skin color. I pondered how the rules of slavery changed from predominantly people who became slaves because of financial circumstances, indentured servitude or spoils of war, to Africans who were basically kidnapped for money and made to be slaves.
In our time, slavery is not seen as good. But this is a new concept. In former times, slavery was a reality for thousands of years. Even our Torah, which celebrates Jewish redemption from slavery, sees slaves as necessary for the running of society. Scripture has strict laws on how to fairly treat slaves – there are rules of behavior of the good person, towards the temporary and permanent slave who resided in their household.
In American history, the “goodness” of those who owned slaves, or even, advocated for the emancipation of slaves, was bound up in the societal mores of the times they lived in.
Famous was President Thomas Jefferson who advocated against the International Slave trade and who spoke about the gradual emancipation and colonization of American slaves. He also was the owner of over 600 Blacks, as they were called then, in his adult life. He wrote, as was commonly thought in his time, that he believed blacks to be inferior to whites. And in recent years, attention has been paid to his relationship with Sally Hemmings, a black woman who lived at Monticello, two of whose children he allowed to “escape” and the other two whom he freed after his death.[ii] Their descendants have been traced to his genome.
Knowing what we know about Thomas Jefferson, was he “Ish Tzadik Tamim Hayah B’doratav” – a righteous and pure man only in his generation? Does his goodness exist only within the context and time of the attitudes in which he lived, or, can we imagine, that goodness was a part of his character make-up? We can wonder: if Thomas Jefferson lived today, would his attitudes be different because the attitudes of society have changed.
Is there a character trait, a personality trait of good, that is a constant no matter what era you live in? This is an argument that philosophers and theologians – from Maimonides, to Rousseau to Hobbes – have engaged in throughout the years. But perhaps the answer is not in the art of theory and argumentation, but in science.
Adrian Ward in a 2012 article in Scientific American[iii] writes of the results of recent multiple experiments to see if humans by nature are good, based on their selfless and selfishness. You would think, if we were to believe what we see through the lens of the camera on TV shows such as “Survivor,” or what is reported in the news, that many of us are selfish by nature.
In this millennia, scientific researchers from Harvard and Yale sought to find the truth, through multiple experiments with over 2000 participants: Is our essential nature good?
Adrian Ward summarizes the findings:
“The results were striking: in every single study, faster—that is, more intuitive—decisions were associated with higher levels of cooperation, whereas slower—that is, more reflective—decisions were associated with higher levels of selfishness. These results suggest that our first impulse is to cooperate… and that we are fundamentally “good” creatures after all.”
So, while we pray that the good play of the Nationals be a constant in years to come, their “good” play, is, we know, time bound to any given year. But as far as human nature is concerned, science at least, would suggest, that goodness is more innate to our person. We might hope then, that Noah, would have aspired to be good in any context. And perhaps Jefferson would have had different attitudes and been regarded as a good man in this time too.
In the book of Proverbs, it is written “A candle of God is the soul of human-being”.[iv] The verse is interpreted to mean: Goodness lies within each one of our souls. It rests there and shines as our first instinct.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, a nineteenth century Hasidic teacher known as Sefat Emet, often spoke of the good light that shines in each person. Like our Harvard and Yale scientists, he believed that our initial instinct is to do good, to be good, and that we make a conscious effort to do the wrong thing.[v]
We live an existence where we choose how we walk in the world.
Once two women went out one night to explore the world. One equipped herself with a lighted torch while the other went out into the darkness without any light. When the one without a torch returned she said: “Wherever I walked there was nothing but darkness.” When the woman who took the lighted torch returned she said: “Everywhere I went I found light.”
The choice is ours. To go with our instincts to be good.
The choice is ours. When we make reflective decisions, to give weight to the good over what might be advantageous or selfish.
The choice is ours. To choose to bring light into this world.
Let us choose good for this time, and for the future, for generations to come.
Oh, yes… and for my husband – weren’t the Nat’s
good this time?
[i] Rashi commentary on Genesis 6:9
[iv] Proverbs 20:27
[v] Sefat Emet on Parashat Reeh
Yom Kippur Morning 5780: Bruchim Habaim
Posted on October 22, 2019 Leave a Comment
“My, you throw a lot of dinner parties,” said my mother’s neighbor.
My Mum was puzzled.
See, my Mum lives on the fourth floor of an apartment building, with three towers each with their own secure entrance. The neighbor did not live in the same tower. And to add to my Mother’s confusion, although my Mum is a consummate hostess, if truth be told, as she has aged, she does entertain less.
The neighbor must have seen the bewildered look on Mum’s face. She clarified: “Oh, I can see into your lounge and dining room from my window in the other tower. I’ve noticed that every Friday night, you set the table beautifully, put out flowers, light candles, and there are always guests in your home.”
My Mum laughed.
While she does occasionally have guests for Shabbat dinner, what the neighbor was seeing, was the regular family get-together, with my parents, brother, sister-in-law, my sister-in-law’s father and my nephew. In my Mother’s mind these were not dinner parties, but rather, part of the rhythm of her Jewish life.
Our tradition innately has built times for family and guests to come together. Shabbat and Yom Tov meals populate our year. Brises, Baby Namings, Bnai Mitzvah celebrations, Weddings, Shiva gatherings, are the feasts that punctuate our lives.
The hospitable nature of Jewish life began in Abraham’s tent. Abraham is recovering from an intimate surgery, his own Bris. Sitting at his tent, all four tent flaps pinned high in the heat of the day, even at this painful moment, he is looking for guests to host.
Then out of the desert, appear three strangers. Abraham, we are taught, gets up and runs out to greet them, begs them to stay, washes their feet and offers them shade under a tree. He behests Sarah to grind grain and make bread, he selects a calf for slaughter, and asks a servant to prepare it, then serving the meal with curds and milk.[i]
Now, I do not share this to whet your appetite on Yom Kippur!
But rather, to show the extent of effort, which Abraham undertook in order to “welcome the stranger” – the Mitzvah known as Hachnasat Orchim.
I bet you at your Pesach Seder have reiterated Rabbi Huna’s famous statement about welcoming the stranger: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”[ii] As Jews we are encouraged to imitate Abraham with a culture of welcome.
But what does it mean to welcome someone?
Our English dictionaries define this as: “greeting someone cordially”. It is a societal constructed norm of behavior. You may have been in situations where welcoming was the right thing. Not doing so, would have reflected badly upon your character.
You may have owed an invitation to someone you were not close to and felt a sense of polite obligation to reciprocate. Perhaps you felt obliged to invite a family member who has said bitter words to a wedding. Or even here at synagogue, you may have encountered someone who did you wrong, and the obligatory “Shabbat Shalom” was still in order.
The cordial welcome is part of our Western civility.
In Hebrew, the words used for welcome are “Bruchim Habaim”. Literally: Blessed are those who Come.
Contrast the idea of greeting someone cordially, with the concept of blessing the moment.
When a bride enters the room to greet her groom we sing: “Baruch Haba b’shem Adonai; B’rachnuchem MiBeit Adonai” – Blessed are you who comes in the name of God. May you be blessed in the house of God.
Reciprocal blessings are offered. The bride entering brings blessing in the name of God. In turn the room, offers blessings to the bride in the House of God.
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about my first Shabbat in my gap year in Jerusalem and how I made my way to my family’s Kibbutz. But it was not possible every Shabbat to make that bus trip.
Then, as now, it was the custom of students to go down to the Western Wall prior to Shabbat. There, a Shaliach was assigned to seek out those who did not have a Shabbat meal and to match them with a traditionally observant family.
For the students, having somewhere to eat and celebrate was a blessing. After all, what sort of meal could you put together in a non-existent kitchen in a dorm room? And for the host families, being able to share their love of Orthodox tradition and their Shabbat feast, was a blessing, as it provided validation for their way of life.
The mitzvah, the blessing, of Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming the stranger exemplifies tangibly the concept that “All Israel is responsible for one another.”[iii]
It is not a custom relegated just to our homes. It is also embodied by traditional behavior in our public spaces. The practice of reciting Kiddush on Shabbat eve in the synagogue arose, in order to accommodate visitors to your town or city of shtetlach, who otherwise might not have an opportunity to bless and drink Shabbat wine. And we are nearing the festival of Sukkot, when we are commanded to erect a Sukkah in our home. For those who cannot, it became the tradition to build a communal Sukkah at the Synagogue.
Still apparently for a wide array of folk, our synagogue is a place of trepidation rather than a place of welcome. They walk in and feel unnoticed, not represented, scared by ritual they feel they should know, or the lack of welcome and ceremony that acknowledges who they really are….
A colleague asked his rabbinic friends, who they thought felt excluded from our synagogues. The answers were an astoundingly long list:
Jews of color; Jews of different ethnicities, singles, the disabled. Those on the other side of the political spectrum, empty nesters, poor Jews, working- class Jews, blue-collar Jews, non-Ashkenazi Jews. Those with chronic pain, adoptees, the developmentally different, women, the intermarried, the adopted, those who did not believe in God. People in the military, introverts, people that wrestle with trauma, dual-faith families. Hearing impaired, special need kids, alcoholics, those in recovery, pregnant teens, the imprisoned, those never-married, LGBTQI Jews. And the list went on and on…
After reading such a catalog, it was startling to think that anyone comes to services and Shul activities at all!
For Jewish communities to be spiritually welcoming we must be open to every blessing that all people bring to us and be willingly to share our blessings with them.
Recently I read an article about a woman with a high powered career, little sleep and “rising star energy”. To keep up with her reputation, she consumed legally-prescribed drugs and kept telling herself that because the doctor gave her the pills, she was fine.
Until she wasn’t. Wake up call: a friend’s overdose.
She realized that her problem was not just pills, but that her workaholic lifestyle left her isolated from meaningful interactions with others. She recognized that her life “… was constant human interaction, but with every single one of those interactions feeling empty and transactional…. There was no place to be real or vulnerable or anything that others wanted her to be.”
Her discovery?… “the opposite of addiction is genuine, meaningful interactions and authentic connections and experiences with our selves, each other, and the world around us.”
If you have been part of Alcoholics Anonymous, or Weight Watchers, or a Grief Group, you probably already know, that it is not just the program, but how powerful and meaningful those real and honest interactions can be for yourself, with people that begin as strangers, and become intimates, that brings efficacy to such support groups.
We as Jewish institutions, even when we pride ourselves on being welcoming, can always do better in our connectivity to the other. We must look, in everything we do, to create moments of deep interactions that lead us to create profound connections and authentic relationships. To embody and promote blessings of connection.
Abraham’s tent, open on all sides, was always ready to welcome family, visitors and strangers – whoever they were. Welcoming family and known visitors, is something so many of us are accustomed to. Reaching out to strangers is a little harder.
Yet that is the point of “all Israel being responsible for one another”. We need to stretch ourselves beyond welcome, of the obligation of greeting someone cordially, to creating moments of Bruchim HaBaim, of blessing for us and for others including the stranger.
At the end of services this morning, make this real – reach out to someone you do not know as well as you would like, and find a time to get to know each other better in the coming year.
Make Shabbat dinner plans together.
Arrange to see a movie.
Invite them to your Simcha.
Meet them for Brunch and bring them along to an Adult Ed class.
Take a drawing class together.
Attend the game.
Find some way to become a blessing for each other.
Begin with one other person. Then choose another. Consciously make such an outreach, part of the rhythm of your Jewish life at home, and the relationships we create here at Bet Aviv.
Let us be connected, deeply, to each another. Let us run out to greet the travelling angels in life and bring them into the tents of our spiritual lives: our homes and this synagogue Bet Aviv. Blessed are You as You come in, Blessed are we by your presence.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. Let this be our will.
[i] Genesis 18
[ii] Taanit 20b
[iii] Shevuot 39a
Yom Kippur Evening 5780: The Knower of Secrets
Posted on October 22, 2019 Leave a Comment
Over half-a-million secrets.
It began nearby in Germantown MD, as a group art project. Frank Warren used his home address and invited people to write him their secrets, on a post card, anonymously.
He only had two rules: The secret must be true, and, it must be something never revealed to anyone else before. More than half-a-million postcards later – he publishes those secrets on his website: postsecret.com[i] which has over 600 million hits.
Let me share some secrets from Frank Warren’s collection:
“I pee in the shower.”
“I am sabotaging my husband’s diet.”
“I want to tell you about my rape so you can know who I really am.”
The secrets range from naughty, sad, funny, raunchy; hopeful, fearful, lustful; and all – every single one – openly vulnerable.
Frank Warren teaches:
“If you keep a secret inside, it feels like a wall that separates us from others. But if we can find the courage, the vulnerability, to share our secrets, those walls become bridges.”
Many of us erect walls in our lives, blocking off our vulnerability from others. All of us have a part of us that wonders – if so-and-so knew something about me – would they still want to be my friend, or love me, or respect me?
In contrast, our father Abraham, the founder of Judaism, sits in an open tent, his life fully open, exposed, revealed, to the world around him. Our Torah stories share with us the good and the bad of Abraham’s life.
He is no saint. We laud his merit, ingenuity and goodness. And – we are privy to his shortcomings, many of which would be considered by most people a Shonda.
Yet in our Torah, Abraham’s secrets are openly displayed for us to wrestle with: a spouse pimping off his wife to kings; a husband and father expelling a concubine and son from his home; and a religious fanatic attempting to murder his other son.
Knowing Abraham’s secrets, exposure to his vulnerabilities, has kept his story compelling for commentators, congregants and rabbis, for millennia.
But would you be comfortable with your life being such an open book, with your most loathsome moments articulated for all to witness? Think of the many celebrities, who struggle with the intrusion of paparazzi and tabloids, detailing and interpreting every minutia of their existence. How would living like that sit with you?
You may recall in 2017 when Anne Hathaway wore a skin-tight dress to the premiere of Les Miserables and accidentally exposed herself. That embarrassing moment was played over and over in the media.
The now out of favor, Matt Lauer, joked on the Today show: “Seen a lot of you lately… you had a little wardrobe malfunction the other night. What’s the lesson to be learned from something like that?”
Anne Hathaway’s response to the inappropriate question would ring true for most of us. She said: “I was very sad that we live in an age when someone takes a picture of another in a vulnerable moment and rather than do the decent thing and delete it, instead sells it.”[ii]
It is natural to not want our tsuris, our secrets, our vulnerabilities, exposed without our assent. You may have had an experience when an intimate detail of your life was shared, and felt uncomfortable with the encroachment. Immediately your walls went up.
In these moments, we identify with the neighbor’s reasoning in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” The neighbor with whom Frost rebuilds the wall, insists: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Yet, Robert Frost wonders in his famous poem, whether our walls might also serve to alienate us from one another. Perhaps impervious fences are a hindrance to forming relationship and connection?
Brene Brown, a researcher and vulnerability expert, teaches that we need openings in our human walls for meaningful connection.[iii] She explains that being vulnerable is not weak. It is an opportunity. It is a worthy risk that demonstrates strength.
Being the first to let down the guard to say “I love you” can result in love; or the first one to say “I am sorry” can result in reconciliation; or being the individual to admit that you are challenged, is a way to create bonds with others.
C.S. Lewis summarizes it this way: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
Frank Warren, the postcard guy, teaches us that the vulnerability of sharing a secret, even anonymously, puts us in touch with the inner essence of self. Remember his words: “if we can find the courage, the vulnerability, to share our secrets, those walls become bridges.”
Our vulnerability is not just a bridge to people. Our vulnerabilities, when shared honestly with ourselves, are a bridge to the Divine.
Reb Nachman of Bratslav, who we study in “Lunch and Learn” says: have faith in the exposure – God is with you. Reb Nachman teaches: Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tsar m’od: The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the crux of the matter is not to be afraid.”
Perhaps that is what God saw in Abraham and why God chose him. His open tent. His human exposure.
Tonight, we yearn for the ultimate relationship, to connect with the Ultimate One, God, on the narrow bridge of our lives. We may not be willing to be as transparent to others as Abraham, but we do need to open ourselves up as much as we can, to the vulnerable crevices of each of our souls, revealing ourselves to ourselves, and to God.
Our liturgy brings us a list of human foibles to consider. The rabbis called these “vidui”/ “confessionals”. Our job this day is Cheshbon HaNefesh, accounting for who we are on the outside and the inside.
In our communal recitation: Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu, Dibarnu Dorfi, Ay, Ay Ay…. in our communal recitation, it is easy, to erect permanent walls and say, these words do not apply to me!
Yet our tradition behooves us to open our hearts. To literally tap our hearts open, into our secret places, to become vulnerable. The words of the Machzor, are our narrow bridges, that we traverse step by step, bravely crossing, as we assess ourselves.
From a different tradition, Reverend Susan Sparks says in an interview:
“I always talk to people about how the church, the sanctuary and the altar are places you need to bring everything. We tend to check ourselves at the door. We think, oh, this is not appropriate, so we hang it up like a coat and bring only a fraction of ourselves to the church. But I tell my congregation that everything is welcome, and actually you need to bring it all in. Whether it’s the fear, the tears, the anger, the resentment, or the laughter, it’s all holy. And unless you bring it in, God can’t heal you.”[iv]
The synagogue, especially on Yom Kippur, is a place where each of us need to bring everything in. Are you ready to sit, your tent flaps open? Are you willing not to be afraid to traverse a narrow bridge? Are you able to expose yourself to yourself, to confess your innermost? To reveal yourself to God, with vulnerability.
Unless you bring all of you here, raw and exposed, you cannot forgive yourself and you cannot create a bridge to the Holy.
Know this in your vulnerability, and exposure, and the revelation of your secrets: God will still be your friend, God will still love you, God will still respect you, whatever.
Something mystical pulls on us and brings us here binding us into a larger crowd than usual. Our Jewish tradition provides us a special blessing for such occasions when seeing a large group. A blessing for us to enter this day of Atonement– this day of At-One-Ment, a day of reuniting all parts of ourselves and connecting with God.
Technically, the Talmud tells us that it is a blessing reserved for a gathering of 600,000 or more people, the number of us that stood at Sinai. The blessing tells us that even in a large crowd, God sees each one of us, and knows and accepts us, for who we are and what is in our hearts.
Let me teach it to you.
It means: Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe: Knower of Secrets.
The words are:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם חכם
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, chacham harazeem.[v]
Today God, we want to be in touch with ourselves and ultimately, with You.
May we stand together this day, within this holy community, and as individuals. Bringing our all, sharing ourselves, open with our deepest vulnerabilities and our honest confidences.
Let us turn the walls in ourselves into bridges that connect us to the Holy.
Please join me:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם חכם
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, chacham harazeem.[vi]
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe: Knower of Secrets.
[ii]https://books.google.com/books?id=D2HWCQAAQBAJ&pg=PT527&lpg=PT527&dq=celebrities+vulnerability+exposed+paparazzi&source=bl&ots=fFng8ipZXM&sig=ACfU3U0vcWWIqbSPyfhJeTewauQFq9Zorg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjlw_r73unkAhWxlAKHX2jCF4Q6AEwAHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=celebrities%20vulnerability%20exposed%20paparazzi&f=false quote from book The SAGE Guide to Key Issues in Mass Media Ethics and Law by William A. Babcock and William H. Freivogle, pages unknown.
[iii] Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780: A Midrash
Posted on October 2, 2019 Leave a Comment
After the Akedah: In Abraham’s Tent
Two weary dust-worn travelers, elder and younger, wandered home into Abraham’s Tent, relocated to Kiryat Arbah. Sarah took one look at them both, and her kishkes knew. This had not been an ordinary journey from which father and son returned. So is the insight of a wife’s mind, such is the anatomy of a mother’s heart.
Something had occurred. Her husband and her son clearly transformed and somehow different. The tension hung between them and permeated the Tent’s air.
It was late evening, and Abraham and Isaac put down their bundles. The firestone. The knife. And stripped down their filthy clothes. With barely a hello they headed for their beds.
Sarah felt suspended in the weight of the moment. What was this about? What happened? She sat still longer-than-a-while in a tense darkness at the petering fire. Finally, her curiosity overtook her patience.
She crept to the corner where her son lay. He was wrestling with angels in his sleep, well, what she hoped were angels.. He looked so young or was it the reality that she was now well over a century, and everyone looked so young? She reached out a withered gentle hand to stroke the boy’s hair.
“Isaac,” she whispered. “My only one, Isaac.” The boy stirred at his mother’s touch.
“Ima?’ he murmured softly.
“Yes, my son.”
“Ima… I looked up to him. He was my Aba, my hero. Now he’s a nightmare. When I sleep. When I wake. How can I ever, how can I ever trust him again? How can I ever forgive him?”
Sarah knew that there comes a time, when all teenagers stop idolizing the footsteps of their parents. That there arrive moments, when the all-knowing father or mother, becomes the know-nothing adult.
But Isaac’s forlorn tone told her that there was more to his words than the natural maturation of a young boy into adulthood, forging his own path, separating his own identity from the adults that raised him.
“What happened my son?”
The words spilled out of him. How they had risen early and walked three days. Left the ass and the servant’s behind. How he had carried the wood and Abraham the firestone and the knife. How he had wondered about the sacrifice, but it was his Aba, so he trusted in him, and in God… and then how they built the altar, and the world spun slowly around him, as he found himself strapped tight to the wood, and his father raising the knife to kill him. How he had let out a wail, and for a moment his father seemed to hesitate, and how he had let out a cry, and his father seemed to come to his senses.
“Hineni. Here I am,” Abraham said, his face aglow in ecstatic awe.
At that moment, Abraham unstrapped him, and took a ram caught in the thicket. A ram for a burnt offering.
“Then Aba smiled,” Isaac told Sarah. “He smiled and told me that the mountain Moriah is now called Adonai Yireh, because of a vision of God. That I would have many descendants and they would know blessing because of what we had just done. Then he told me to walk together with him to Beer Sheba.
Do you know how hard it was to walk with him, after what he had just done? How I just wanted to flee? Then we came here… to you, and now, it’s all just one long night terror. Why did he do this? What was he thinking? How can I forgive him? How, can I, forgive him? I don’t want to speak to him ever again. I will not speak with him ever again.”
Sarah abruptly realized she was holding her breath, she was not breathing through this emotional harangue, words that made no sense and made sense. Tears soaked her face. Her heart shattering, shattering, all at once.
She finally breathed a response into being, knowing it was beyond inadequate: “Oh my son. Sleep my son. Rest my son. I am here my son. With you my son.”
She was shaking as her hand stroked his hair.
The fire was now blackened embers. But she did not need firelight to make it to her husband’s corner of the tent. This time her touch was not so gentle. She shook him.
“Abraham, you need to wake up.”
He stirred. She shook him. Her voice spoke with increasing urgency.
“Abraham, you need to wake up. We need to talk. Not tomorrow. Not in a few days. Now.”
“I am tired Sarah.”
He sat up, somewhat bewildered by her tone.
“Isaac told me. He told me what happened. Who are you? What were you thinking? He’s our son. Our favorite. The one we love. He is our long-awaited for Isaac. And you took him to a mountain … to sacrifice him? What the hell…”
“God spoke to me.” Abraham said. “It was the final test..The final proof of my loyalty and obedience. It was my moment to show him I was worthy of the covenant, of the promises, of the task of being a patriarch to descendants, as numerous as the stars of heaven, and the sands on the seashore…”
“Abraham. Look at me. This is me, Sarah. This is your son, Isaac. We are your loved ones, your family.” Her voice quivered.
Abraham interrupted… “God spoke to me… “
Sarah found the strength to speak her truth. She took his hand.
“I am speaking to you now. I am your wife, with whom you have a relationship. This family has sacrificed again and again as you have pursued faithfulness with God. I changed my name. I left our wider family to live an itinerate life in the wilderness in this Tent. You have put my life at risk more than once as we have passed through the territory of Kings, like Pharaoh and Abimelech. I have been by your side through every God-given test. Listened to your deliberations and supported you in your actions. But this. Abraham. Sacrificing our son? The son I birthed in our old age against all odds. This, Abraham, is our son, our connection to the future. This, you do not risk! This, you do not sacrifice.”
Sarah began to sob. Three staccato notes. As the Shevarim sound of a Shofar. She could not help herself, her broken heart vibrating through her voice. She began to wail. Nine howls as the Teruah sound of the Shofar.
“For this I cannot forgive you.”
Abraham withdrew his hand. He looked bewildered. “God spoke to me.”
“I speak to you. You put us your loved ones last. I am going to sleep over there.”
As she pointed beyond the fire pit, now darkened of any glow.
“Abraham, this time your thoughtlessness has put your relationship with your family on the line. You have traumatized your son. You are killing me.”
It seemed like days, though the hours were few, till morning broke on the horizon.
Abraham stirred unable to go back to sleep. His wife was not next to him. He could hear Isaac tossing in the bed beyond. His son had tossed all night. Come to think of it, his son had been restless like that every night since Moriah.
Abraham’s mind turned to his conversation with Sarah the night before. Could he make up with Sarah? His mind turned to the events on Mount Moriah. Would his son ever talk to him again?”
In that morning light the reality of the last few days seeped in. He rose to set and kindle the morning fire himself. But his mind was not with his hands. His head ruminated on all that had passed. He could not let it go. He could not let it go. A man of faith became a man of doubt.
Yes, he had passed God’s test. He had assured the generations to come would be secure. But, his own family. What of their relationship? Had he really done the right thing? What if he’d killed Isaac? What if Isaac was traumatized? What if Sarah left him? What if they both left him? And what if… what if… God forbid… it was too late to be forgiven?
He went over to lie by his wife. Wanting some comfort from his doubts. She was lying so still. He reached out to touch her.
Sarah’s body was cold and stiff like a ram’s horn-bone. He listened for her breath. No breath.
There would be no comfort. No breath of forgiveness could be requested now. Her voice cut through his memory “…You have traumatized your son. You are killing me.”
He called out to his son, the one named for laughter: “Isaac?”
But even if he could be heard, there was no response.
“Isaac?” No response.
“Isaac. Wake up… Son, your Ima is dead.”
Where his son lay a human wail began. A Tekiah. A Tekiah Gedolah. In the primal cry Abraham in a moment grasped all foolishness.
He had not just acted thoughtlessly. That would have been challenging enough. He had been remiss and untimely in recognizing his folly. Inept and late. Forgiveness more challenging because of his blinkered world view. Forgiveness more improbable because of his myopia.
Abraham sat in his open tent between his dead wife and his traumatized son. Abraham sat, just a man, open to his own vulnerability. He knew not what to do, except to talk to God. What else was left for him in the moment?
“God, because of my lack of merit, help those who come after me to recognize their own folly. Forgive them. Give them the strength to ask forgiveness of others. Let them recognize the importance of finding forgiveness for others. And give them the ability to find forgiveness in themselves.”
The fire he had built began to build. Abraham sat in the realness of the growing light of day. His son continued to wail. Could he forgive himself? The question hung over his head. Abraham was alone. He so wanted to hear God’s response. He so wanted to know that it would be okay. But God’s voice would no longer come.
All that resounded, was his own head-voice over and over:
“Forgive them. Give them the strength to ask forgiveness of others. Let them recognize the importance of finding forgiveness for others. And give them the ability to find forgiveness in themselves.”
Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
Posted on October 2, 2019 Leave a Comment
It was the beginning of High Holy Day services: the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
The congregation was ready. The bima was dressed in white. The welcome tables were set outside the doors of the synagogue. The High Holy Day prayer books were on the shelves to be distributed. The ushers had been coached to be warm and welcoming and were standing by the doors and the aisles.
One of the ushers greeted an older woman, he didn’t recognize… a ticket holder, or perhaps new to the community. The usher was extremely hospitable, just as he had been trained to be:
“L’Shanah Tovah!” he said.
He gave her a prayer book and walked her into the sanctuary. Chatting away, he asked: “So, where would you like to sit?”
She answered: “The front row please.”
“Are you sure you want to do that?” the usher asked…. “The rabbi is really boring.”
The woman said: “Do you happen to know who I am?”
“No,” he replied.
With an indignant tone in her voice she said: “I’m the rabbi’s mother!”
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“No”, she said.
It is the beginning of High Holy Day services: the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Do you know who you are?
Our father Abram (as he was known at the time) grew up in the cities of Ur and Haran. Following the death of his father Terah, he hears the voice of God. “Lech Lecha – Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land I will show you.”[i]
The call of God: Lech Lecha, is contextualized as “Go forth!” But its literal meaning is a command, to “Go into yourself.” God’s words behest Abram to explore who he really is, away from his native land, absent from the secure walls of his father’s house, amidst the expanse and exposure of a land that God will show him.
Bravely, Abram leaves to go into himself, his physical journey a metaphor for a much more profound spiritual journey. He pitches an open tent along his circuitous travels.
On his physical journey a tent will leave him fully exposed to all elements from north, from south, from east and west. Elements of nature: sun and rain and wind. Elements of nomads: enemies and friends and angels.
Spiritually, the openness of the tent leaves him exposed on an outward-bound, inward-centered journey of discovery. To pursue his elemental Self. Who is he?
It is the beginning of High Holy Day services: the eve of Rosh Hashanah. The season demands a spiritual journey into our selves. To do this properly we must muster our openness and bravery.
Who are you? Are you willing to find out?
It takes chutzpah to leave your comfort zone, your familiar place, culture, habits, routine. Such a departure allows you to question everything, your thought patterns, your mantras, your norms. Abram leaves Haran. Growth begins with the leaving.
Following High School, like many young Australian Jewish people of my era, I left for a gap year in Israel. It was not my first sojourn in the Holy Land. My beloved uncle and aunt and their young children lived on a Kibbutz, and I had stayed with them in my earlier years, along with my parents and brother.
But it was my first time leaving my native land of Australia and travelling overseas on my own. Jerusalem, where I was situated, was not the western-middle- eastern hybrid that it is today. The sights and sounds and attitudes and rhythms were in many ways more Arabicized than modernized.
The end of my first week in Israel, saw me making my way to the old Central Bus Terminal in Jerusalem with what seemed half the population of the city. All of us were going somewhere for Shabbat.
I bought a ticket in my fledgling Hebrew and stood in line. The overwhelming smell of diesel and food and perspiration mixed the air. Patiently, I took in the sights of the religious Jews, the Arabs, the families, the elderly, the soldiers slung with guns, all standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd.
I was not in Melbourne anymore.
The bus pulled up. And the line I thought I was standing in, dissipated into folk pushing and jostling to make it on the bus with the urgency of Shabbat before them. I stood quietly and politely with the manners my parents had trained me with, waiting my turn. In the bustle, my place in line fell further and further behind. I missed the bus. Not just once. Another bus came and went.
Finally, an aha! I needed to push myself not just onto the bus, but into a new way of behaving. Confidently claiming my rightful place as the next passenger. I glared at those pushing in front. I pushed my way forward. I bordered the bus. I knew I had to get to the Kibbutz before Shabbat!
Being assertive in the queue was risky and brave and different to my well-behaved Australian self. Even a little Jewish guilt in what felt like misbehavior. Like Abram I had left my native land. I went beyond my comfort zone.
Our task at this High Holy Day season is to discover the essence of our selves. Like Abram, we must be willing to leave the familiar land and we also must be willing, to metaphorically leave our father’s house. Willing to deconstruct, reconstruct, what we think we know. Leaving our father’s house means opening ourselves up to new ways of thinking and conceiving.
Two New York designers in the 1950’s, were looking for a new type of wallpaper to decorate walls. Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding sealed two shower curtains together, creating a series of air bubbles. They were convinced this was a winning idea for a wall covering. Yet the new wallpaper failed to catch on.
Then Marc and Al, not to be defeated, decided they would try to market the product as house insulation. The re-vision failed miserably.
By 1960, back at the drawing board, they figured out that the wallpaper could be used as a protective packaging material. And they called it: “Bubble Wrap”. It was picked up by IBM and the rest, as they say, is history…[ii]
Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding were willing to destruct, reconstruct and reconceive their initial conception. It was the rethinking of new possibilities for their invention that led to their success.
When we strip away our thinking, our wallpaper, we do not know what we will find. When we think differently, see things differently, we can achieve different results. Know this: the world of everything you hold is but a construct. Tearing down the walls and peeling back the wallpapers, might be scary, but the exposure allows a journey into your essential Self.
When I was young, my parents renovated our family home. We were the first Jewish family to ever have lived in that house in what was largely a non-Jewish neighborhood. They stripped all the wallpaper in their bedroom.
Underneath the many layers, in red paint on the white wall, was scribed the words: “Yom Kippur” and a Magen David. Stripped bare of its wall coverings, all kinds of questions emerged from these words revealed on the bedroom wall. How did this get here? Who painted it? What was its significance to them? What meaning-making could we, a Jewish family, decipher of what was written on the walls of my parent’s bedroom, where they had slept, unknowingly, beneath these words, for years?
At Rosh Hashanah our walls are stripped bare, they become open like Abram’s tent, exposed.
At the High Holy Days we are Abram. We leave our lands. We symbolically set aside the world in which we are comfortable. We leave our father’s house. We leave behind the thought patterns we have been beholden too. And then, in our exposure we call out to our souls: Who am I? What is important? Where is my journey headed? What can my future look like?
Abram set out on a journey to a land the he would be shown by God. What land will we be shown as we open ourselves up to the sacred wanderings of these Days of Awe?
Abraham Maslow put it this way: “One can choose to go back towards safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again, fear must be overcome again and again.”
It is the beginning of High Holy Day services: the eve of Rosh Hashanah. The season demands a spiritual journey into our selves.
Do you know who you are?
Lech lecha, my fellow travelers. Be brave. Go into yourself. Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that God will show you.
Dwell in the open tent and this journey that this High Holy Day season gifts to us.
[i] Genesis 12:1
Spiritual Sustenance In Dark Times
Posted on August 28, 2019 Leave a Comment
Rabbi Israel Spira told of a dark, cold night at the Janowska Road Camp.
All were ordered to leave the barracks or be shot on the spot. The prisoners stampeded their way out the door towards an open field. With their last drop of energy, they realized where they were running. And breathless, they saw in front of them two pits.
A voice called out in the night: “Each of you miserable dogs who value your life must jump over the pit and land on the other side. All who fall into the pit will get what they deserve – ra-ta-ta-ra-ta-ta” as the guard imitated the sound of a machine gun.
Even at the best of times, it would have been hard to traverse one side of the pit for the other. But the men who stood there were skeletons, diseased and feverish from sleepless nights. They knew for the SS and the Ukrainian Guards, this, was just a game.
Rabbi Israel Spira stood there with his friend, a free-thinker from a Polish town. His friend said: “Spira, jumping over the pit, that’s impossible. Let’s just sit down and end our wretched lives now.”
Rabbi Spira responded: “My friend. Man must obey God. And if it was decreed that we should be here, that pits should be dug, and that we were to be ordered to jump, then, this must be the will of God. So, jump we must, and if we fall, we will reach the World of Truth a second later. So be it. We must jump.”
As the two neared the pit, they could see it was filled with bodies. As they reached the edge, the Rabbi closed his eyes and said in a powerful whisper: “We are jumping!”
And when they opened their eyes, they found themselves on the other side of the pit.
“Spira” cried his friend, “We are alive! We are alive! There is a God! Rebbe, how did you do it?”
Rabbi Spira replied “I was holding onto my ancestral merit, the coattails of my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather of blessed memory. Tell me my friend, how did you reach the other side of the pit?”
And his Polish companion answered: “I, I was holding onto you.”[i]
The Shoah, in our current generation, is surely remembered as the darkest time of Jewish recent history. But there have been many dark times in days of yore. Only two weeks ago we were commemorating Tisha B’Av, the catch-all day on the Jewish calendar of atrocity – the destruction of the first and second Temples, the beginning of the first Cruscade that killed 100,000 Jews, the expulsion of Jews from England and Spain, Pogroms, and so on and so on.
The book of Deuteronomy also recalls a dark time – a time when God tested us with hardships in the wilderness. And why? To teach us that human beings do not live by bread alone.[ii] Life is not just the physical time and physical space we find ourselves in. There is another realm of existence of equal importance. The level of the spiritual which provides a different sustenance to our being which allows us to endure.
Even five years ago, many Jews in America felt that they were living in blessed physical circumstances. Antisemitism seemed in many ways on the decline, a Jewish man was running to be the Democratic nominee, and Jews had “made it” in many parts of society. We were proud members of Country Clubs and had benefited from access to all kinds of education and professions. The antisemitic incident was considered the exception not the rule. We had become complacent and skeptical that anti-Jewish sentiment was a real threat to our lives in the American present.
Contrast five years ago with the news just this last week.
The reporters have highlighted the antisemitic views held by two freshman congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Talib, who see Israel as an apartheid state and support the Boycott Divestment and Sanction movement. And the media is still conversing on the flagrant antisemitic words expressed by President Trump: that Jews who vote democratic are disloyal to America.
As the historian of the Holocaust, Deborah Lipstadt, has so cogently argued in her new book Antisemitism: Here and Now, we should not be so myopic to think that antisemitism is to be found only on one side of the political spectrum. It has become clear to all of us, that we Jews are not living in a golden age in the golden medina. We know antisemitism when we see it. We know antisemitism when we feel it. And it is now.
So how are we to deal with this modern reality were antisemitism is once more, not in faraway places like the Middle East or Paris, but here, in America, where we reside?
I found Deborah Lipstadt’s book very helpful in molding my thinking on this. She contends that Antisemitism is not a rational concept. The idea that Jews killed Jesus, when they had not power to do so under Roman rule; or that Jews control the banks and the media; or can be identified by physical traits alone; or have a secret cabal that runs the world, are irrational ideas. It has nothing to do with any action Jews have taken. Irrational ideas cannot be argued against on a rational level.
Not so long ago we witnessed extremists in Charlottesville who shouted: “Jews shall not replace us” and “Blood and soil,” brought together through the hate and vitriol of preconceived ideas promoted by social media.
We are now hearing about the increase of white nationalists, usurping identities of well-known Jews, and using their impersonations to create a narrative with the intent of increasing antisemitism and to bolster their own understandings.
We have all met individuals tone-deaf to their own tropes. Remember that moment in the film Gentleman’s Agreement , when David Green’s young son came home from school, crying because he had been called “a stinking Jew” and Dorothy McGuire hugs him and says “Darling! It’s not true! You’re no more Jewish than I am. It’s just a horrible mistake!” She could not hear her demeaning nuance.
And we are seeing now, here in America, but also elsewhere in the world, antisemitism used for political purposes and ends. We are reading and watching those with a predilection to supporting the underdog, consistently painting Jews as the oppressors. And at the dinner table, we will hear someone who believes that they are complimenting, when they say that they invested with a specific stockbroker because they are a Jew, and he will know how to make money. They are unaware of their own bigotry.
Our cogent arguments reach deaf ears of these antisemites. The antisemite will find their own rationale, and choose to believe fictitious facts, that support their belief even if truth is to the contrary.
One does not live by bread alone. The circumstances are as dark as a wilderness at night. But there is more to our Jewish existence than negativity. Where, and how, do we find that spiritual sustenance that will sustain us?
A tale is told of Louis Brandeis when he was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were closed to Jewish attorneys.
When Louis Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say “Brandeis, you’re brilliant! If you weren’t a Jew, you could end up at the Supreme Court. Why don’t you convert? Then all your problems would be solved!”
Louis Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but in his official introduction to an exclusive Honor Society at the Law School, he took the podium and announced: “I am sorry I was born a Jew…”
His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts and cheers! And when the noise died down, he continued: “I am sorry I was born a Jew, but only because, I wish I had the privilege of choosing to be Jewish on my own.”[iii]
The initial response was stunned silence, slowly giving away to awed applause. Ultimately, his antisemitic peers gave him a standing ovation.
Being Jewish means that we realize that Judaism provides our lives with something more than exposure in time and space to bigotry. We, wandering the wilderness do not live by bread alone. In this dark time, we must choose not to wallow in pity or be scared – but to embrace our identity, be proud of it, and defend it, for within it is spiritual sustenance.
Here are some of the things we can do.
We must call out antisemitism when we see it or feel it. Whether we are on the political right or political left, we must ensure that our voices are at the table speaking up and naming, what we experience as Jews.
We must speak the truth to our friends, sharing how the offhanded remark or joke makes us feel, and how it is interpreted in our heart-of-hearts, so they become more aware of their own bias blindness.
We must recognize that in America today we as Jews have many allies and friends. People like the Churches in this Interfaith Center, who strive to create a world filled with understanding. Folk who seek to right the wrongs of bigotry against Jews in times past and in moments present.
We must celebrate all that is wonderful in Judaism – our food, our stories, our culture, our history, our music, our religious holidays – and share the Jew positive with ourselves, our friends and the next generations.
We ultimately need to know, that Judaism, culturally and spiritual, is a sustenance that brings a deliciousness to our lives that we cannot live without.
Like Rabbi Spira, who jumped over a pit we must feel a connection to our ancestors. They survived many dark times. We have survived because of their merit and their grit. We are Jews because of them. We hang on to their coattails.
And in the moments,
we feel distance from our ancestors, we hold onto each other, and in this dark moment
of history, pull each other across the negative divide.
[i] Yaffa Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, NY: Vintage Books , 1982 “Hovering Above the Pit” pp. 3-4
[ii] Deuteronomy 8:3
[iii] Reference needed – found in a previous sermon
Posted on January 1, 2019 Leave a Comment
The trees are bare here in Baltimore. But in the land of Israel, coinciding with Tu B’Shevat, the almond trees begin to blossom ushering in the first sign of spring.
In the book of Jeremiah, in his earliest prophecy, God asks Jeremiah what he envisions? He sees an almond branch in full bloom – the almond branch a symbol of the imminent nature of the prophecy itself. (Jeremiah 1:11-12).
In the book of Numbers, Chapter 17, following the challenge to leadership by Korach, God through Moses, sets up a challenge to establish God’s preference for headship of the Priests. Twelve rods are set up by the Tent of Meeting, and the head Priest will be the one whose staff blossoms. Aaron’s staff shoots up an almond blossom and fruit, indicating that Aaron will be first.
Not just an ancient symbol for beginnings and firsts, the almond tree is immortalized as a “first”, on the new orange 100-new-sheqel note in Israel. On this new currency note, a picture of the Israeli poet Leah Goldberg, is accompanied in small print with a line from her poem: “In the land of my love the almond tree blossoms…” as she refers to the fleeting nature of Spring in the land of Israel.
On Tu BiShevat, at our Seder, as we eat our first taste of fruit, known as “fruit with shells” the almond is a common taste that is in our first line-up of fruits. We will sing joyfully:
“The almond tree is growing,
A golden sun is glowing;
Birds sing out in joyous glee
From every roof and every tree.
Tu B’Shevat is here,
The Jewish Arbor Day
Hail the trees’ New Year,
The fruit-with-shells, our first taste of the Seder celebrating the New Year of the Trees, is often represented by almonds. The fruit-with-shells, in our mystic tradition, is a symbol the notion of the world of here-and-now. In our mystical language: it represents the world of Assiyah “doing”. The sweetness of the fruit is inside an encased shell, teaching us that as we live our lives in the present, we are encased by God’s effluence. God protects us.
January is the beginning of our Gregorian year.The Talmud offers us the maxim: “All beginnings are hard”. There is something comforting in the symbolic reminder of the almond-first-fruit, the fruit-with-shells, that in here-and-now beginnings there is a sweetness to be consumed, and that our lives are surrounded by God’s loving protection.
Happy secular New Year to all. Happy Tu B’Shevat to all. A time of good and positive beginnings for all.
Our Jewish Identities[i]
Posted on November 30, 2018 Leave a Comment
Diane Gabaldon’s well-read NY Times, best-selling novel, and now a STARZ TV series, Outlander, is, for those that like historical romance, a double historical-time setting whammy. In 1945, a retired World War II nurse, Claire Randall is on a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in Scotland. She finds herself suddenly transported to 1743 – and to survive she marries Jamie, a handsome Scots warrior who becomes enmeshed in the Jacobite uprisings. Eventually discovering that she can time- travel, Claire becomes caught up between two different men, two different lives. In the narrative that traces her journeys and experiences, she brings insight and wisdom from the future into the eighteen-hundreds, and a sense of the yearning for the past into her future twentieth-century reality.[ii]
In Jewish narrative time, our next few weeks are also hanging between two different historical eras, each with its own story and each with its own lessons.
In our Torah readings, we are commencing the Joseph cycle. The story of the chutzpadik dreamer, Joseph, tossed by his brothers into a pit, then sold to slavery, tossed into jail, and then rescued on the back of dreams, which prompts his meteoric rise to being 2nd in command to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt.
In our calendrical story, the three parshiot that tell of Joseph, always run concurrent with the festival of Chanukah. The Chanukah tale is set in a different time of our history. During the Syrian Seleucids rule over the Holy Land, and it tells of the Maccabean rebellion against the tyranny of religious oppression, the reclamation and purification of the Temple, and the establishment of the Hasmonean Dynasty.
In our prayer services and in our studies, like Claire Randall who jumps between historical times, we as Jews will swing back and forth though history. We will oscillate between Egypt circa 1600-1700 BCE, and the Hasmonean period of 167 BCE – 63 CE. The narratives always juxtaposed in Jewish narrative time, are separated by about 1500 years.
Since nothing in Judaism is circumstance, what can we learn between the consistent matching of these two stories? At first glance, the story of Joseph and the story of Judah Maccabee seem to have little in common. But if we look a little below the surface, beyond the narrative to the themes, there are lessons that can be derived.
The story of Joseph and the story of the Maccabees are both stories that speak of the relationship between a group’s particularistic identity and its interaction with outside influences.
Joseph, is an acculturated Egyptian. Born a Hebrew, he adapts to Egyptian ways and mores, to survive and eventually thrive, in a foreign culture. He swaps his coat of many colors hand-woven by his father, for the royal robes of the viceroy of Egypt. Underneath it all he is a Jew – he announces to his brothers at the end of the tale: “I am your brother Joseph,” but on the outside he has fully integrated and could be easily mistaken for a typical Egyptian.
Joseph is the young immigrant to the lower eastside of NY. Who shed their European peasant clothes for western garb made in modernized factories. Who spoke to their children in English rather than Yiddish. Who changed their names so that they could advance in the world. No longer peddlers on the streets, or piece workers in the schmatte business, they aspired to be doctors and lawyers, reporters and managers, and people of “regular professions” as well as practicing the Jewish religion.
Joseph is the early German Reform Jews who wanted to be taken seriously in a world that had emancipated them from ghetto life. The synagogue became the Temple in order to promote a concept of loyalty to their home country. The chants and tropes of Chazzanut were rejected for more contemporary music played on an organ like in a church. The Rabbi wore robes like a priest and no longer just taught and adjudicated, but was expected to attend to clergy duties such as visiting the sick and leading services. Both rabbi and congregant shed kippah, tallit and tefillin as garbs of yesteryear. They were modern on the outside, and Jewish on the inside.
Joseph is the culinary Jew of today. One who attends a meal for the Passover Seder with only the first part of the Haggadah read, or no part of the Haggadah read – but boy is the food, yum! They might light candles at Chanukah – if they remember! And the Bar Mitzvah is mostly about the party. Oh boy, do they like lokshen kugel (which they call noodle pudding) and kneidlach (which they call matzah balls) and Chocolate Babka (which is so delicious that it is acceptable to use its Jewish name). They are Jewish to the core in their culinary tastes, just not Jewishly religious.
The Maccabean story, and its’ heroes, thrive using a different approach. Living in an era when Jewish identity is suppressed and oppressed, they yearn and fight for greater adherence and practice. Jewish survival for them is not found in adaption or appropriation of outside customs, but rather in “authenticity.” Identity for Maccabean type Jews is built through an insular approach and maintaining traditions.
The Maccabees are the Chassidic Orthodox Jews of today who reject outside influences, such as television and Google and high school educations, who wear the garb of their Polish ancestors, and who prefer instead to immerse themselves in the study of Torah and Jewish practice in Yeshivot.
The Maccabean Jews of today are those adherents to Classical Reform Judaism as their religion. The folk that reminisce how in the day, all the prayers were in English – except the Shema. No-one wore a kippah. The music was to be performed and respected as the audience/congregation listened. And the Rabbi’s word was the word of God. They advocate that the essence of Reform Judaism is in such traditions, and that is the way Reform Judaism should be expressed today – and ever more shall be so.
The Maccabean Jews of today are the Israelis that preach that Judaism will only survive in the land of Israel because one can only be truly Jewish in a Jewish land. Where the seasonal music is not Christmas melodies, but rather Jewish festival tunes. Where Shabbat is in the airwaves of the radio station and traffic comes to standstill on Yom Kippur. And where the norm for bakeries is to rival each other on who makes the best challah or sufganiyah.
Perhaps the lesson of reading the Joseph narrative and the Maccabean revolt together, during this time of year, is to present us with two extreme ways of being Jewish. The extreme of the assimilated Joseph who is all Egyptian with a tad of Judaism, and the extreme of the dogmatic Maccabean who is all Judaism and rejecting of most of modernity. Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation in Toronto suggests that “Today, both approaches are embraced by different factions within our people, to varying degrees. There will always be room at the Jewish family table for both the Josephs and the [Maccabean] brothers.“[iii]
This is true. But the Jewish family table is filled with more seats…
Most of us would not place ourselves on the extreme sides of preferring secular living or Jewish practice. We contemplate finding balance in the middle. We seek a personal mixture of integrating into society, and, making our lives Jewish, in a way that works for us and our families. This of course is the essence of Reform Judaism. Balancing modernity with our Jewish faith. As we sit in the middle of the table, we must advocate that our place setting is valid and authentic. As we sit in the middle of the table, let us be mindful of the balancing act we create in our daily lives.
The juxtaposition of the Joseph narrative and the Chanukah story, the presentation of one extreme versus another, begs us to ask the question of ourselves: How can we be authentic moderns and Jews at the same time? As we revisit two periods of Jewish narrative time, Egypt circa 1600-1700 BCE, and the Hasmonean period of 167 BCE – 63 CE, we are challenged to ask essential questions of our own Jewish identity as we balance being Jewish now, for ourselves, today.
Wishing you all a happy Chanukah. May your sense of Jewish self and modern self, find a re-contemplated balance, an admixture of Jewish identity that brings meaning to all your days, and inspires the next generations and eras to come.
[i] This sermon was inspired by the teaching of Rabbi Daniel Korobkin in this article: https://www.cjnews.com/perspectives/opinions/many-lessons-chanukah
[iii] Op cit. Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Gender in the Image of God
Posted on October 26, 2018 Leave a Comment
Like all interesting television, there was a cutting edge premise.
In 2014 Jill Solloway produced a comedy drama for Amazon studios that went on to win multiple Golden Globe Awards. The series was based on her own experience of her father coming out as transgender. In the series, Transparent, the story was told of a Los Angeles Jewish family, the Pfeffermans, whose father – Mort – transitions to become Maura.
For those of you who have seen the series, you will know that many of the themes are distinctively Jewish, including a well-portrayed female rabbi, Holocaust switchbacks and a trip to Israel. Also, many of the neuroses portrayed are Woody Allen style stereotypically Jewish – from food obsession to personal angst and guilt.
But the primary purpose of the series is not its Jewish story-line, but rather to explore ideas of gender identity through, as Jill Solloway worded it: “a wounded father being replaced by a blossoming femininity.” In order to make sure that this was authentic as possible, Jill Solloway set about to create a transfirmative action program, hiring transgender individuals to write, work and consult on the show.
A Jewish transgender television series in 2014 might be conceived as cutting-edge to mainstream America, but from a Jewish viewpoint, this concept was not a radical endeavor.
Our Torah portion Vayera begins with Abraham sitting in his tent in the hot sun, when three strangers/angels wander by and Abraham hurries to offer them hospitality, enlisting his wife Sarah in this project. At the finish of the meal, the strangers ask where Sarah is, and they are told she is inside the Tent. The visitors then predict that, at this time next year, Sarah will bear a son. We are told in the Biblical text that Abraham and Sarah are old. Sarah beyond child-bearing years. And Sarah laughs. Abraham however questions Sarah’s mirth – for is anything beyond the power of God?
The Talmud, in Yebamot, pursues an interesting tangent from this biblical text. The rabbis seek to understand why our forefather and foremother are infertile.
Rabbi Ami… and this is where it gets interesting… Rabbi Ami suggests that Abraham and Sarah were Tumtumim, people whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured, and God turned them into male and female gender, specifically for the purpose of procreation.
Then the Talmud surprises us with a differing viewpoint… Rab Nachman quotes Rabbi Bar Avuh, and he declares that Sarah was an Ay’lonit, an individual identified as female at birth, but who develops male characteristics at puberty, and hence is infertile. He offers as a proof-text the words of Genesis 11, “she had not child,” to indicate that she did not have a womb.
We tend to think of Abraham and Sarah, the original progenitors of our people, as a man and a woman colored by our growing up in a world that has seen binary gender as normative.
On our birth certificates the doctor declares us male or female. Forms ask us if we are masculine or feminine. We attend Camp Airy if we are a boy. Camp Louise if we are a girl. Genesis 1 declares that in the beginning God created Adam and Eve, male and female God created them. American society is greatly influenced by Christian values which understands gender as simply male or female.
Reuben Zellman tells the story of a College student walking down the street of a major U.S. city when a woman shouted out and began following the student down the street. “Hey,” she yelled. “I’m talking to you! Are you a man or a woman?” as she cut off the student’s path. “Just tell me what you are.” When the student did not respond, the woman said: “You’re a woman right? I knew it, you are a woman.” Finally, the student responded: “No.” “Well, fine, you’re a man then.” And again, the student responded: “No”. The woman began to scream “Which are you? Why won’t you tell me?” The student swallowed and said as evenly as they could: “I’m neither man nor woman. I am neither. I am both.” The woman, and her friends, began to laugh incredulously. “You’re both! You can’t be both.”
You can’t be both.
President Trump and his Administration have taken such limited view of gender as binary. This stance has received much press in the last week. An article in The Guardian explains: “US officials have been pushing for the rewriting of General Assembly policy statements to remove what the administration argues is vague and politically correct language, reflecting what it sees as an “ideology” of treating gender as an individual choice rather than an unchangeable biological fact.”
Our Jewish tradition from Mishnaic times, would disagree with this understanding of the existence of only binary gender. Our rabbis saw the world as being filled with gender diversity, defining at least six possible genders that they understood as present in this world.
Their first two categories are the traditional male and female many of you were raised with as normative. Zachar, or male, is a word derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. Nekevah, or female is based on the word for crevice and refers to the female anatomy.
But there is more diversity in gender. In the Mishna and the Talmud and Classical Midrash, a period spanning from the 1st through 16th centuries of the Common Era there are exactly 499 references to the Androgynos. This is a person with both male and female sexual characteristics. The first Androgynos was Adam in Genesis 2 – a human who then was split into two genders.
Already we have heard arguments over Abraham and Sarah’s gender. Rabbi Ami suggests that both our ancestors were Tumtumim. The Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash and Jewish law codes have 516 references referring to people who are Tumtum.
Rab Nachman quotes Rabbi Bar Avuh suggests that Sarah is an Ay’lonit – a person who is female at birth but develops male characteristics at puberty and is infertile. Mishna, Talmud, Midrash and Law Codes speaks of such individuals 120 times.
Then there are Saris, a person who identifies as male at birth but develops female characteristics at purberty, and, may or may not be lacking a penis. According to 535 references in Mishna, Talmud, Midrash and Law codes one can be a natural Saris, or one may become one through human intervention. Our rabbis even knew of transgender surgery!
It is clear in our texts, that Jewish tradition has historically understood that there is diversity of gender, even if in the more traditional communities the marriage of a man and a woman is seen as an ideal. The acknowledgement of a richness of gender is part of what Judaism sees as the reality of the world. No surprise then that a Jewish sitcom, Transparent, should be one that brings to the fore of American consciousness a discussion of gender diversity.
Caitlyn Jenner, once a male Olympic athlete, then a minor character in a reality TV show, and now a transgender rights advocate and author, wrote an opinion piece in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled: “I thought Trump would help trans people. I was wrong.” 
Caitlyn writes of her dashed hope to work within the Republican system on transgender rights. She speaks of her many trips to educate and lobby members of Congress, Washington policy makers and powerful influences.
Following two years of efforts, Caitlyn laments: “The recently leaked Department of Health and Human Services memo that suggests – preposterously and unscientifically – that the government ought to link gender to one’s genitalia at birth, is just one more example in a pattern of political attacks. One doesn’t need to look back far to witness the president assault our nation’s guardians with a ban on trans people serving in the military or assail our nation’s future with a roll back of Obama-era protections for trans schoolchildren.”
Rightly, Caitlyn Jenner sees people denied humanity.
It is important to see humanity in all its diversity. Our rabbis saw this diversity. If writing today, they may have even been even more nuanced than the six or seven genders recognized in our text.
Last summer, when I attended the new 6 Points Jewish Arts Academy, each child who attended, each adult on staff, was asked what their preferred gender pronoun was. I am seeing this question asked more often in schools, at conferences, in houses of worship and at camps. Seeing people for who they are acknowledges and celebrates their humanity.
The impact of Jill Solloway’s TV show Transparent, and its exploration of multiplicity of gender identification, was and continues to be profound in the American societal context. From a Jewish point of view, it is not a cutting-edge premise, to acknowledge what is the reality of gender identification, in a TV show or in daily life.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that every human being – each of us, is made, B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. God cannot be perceived as one gender, or another gender. God is beyond gender. God is all genders.
As a Jewish community, with a long historical understanding of a multiplicity in gender, we need to promote what is real and true. Like the rabbis before us, we must advocate for a world where people are people, defining themselves in a way that is comfortable for them to be authentic. Inspired by Jewish text and perspective, let us lobby for equal treatment and recognition under the law.
It is our mission to be part of tikkun, mending, to create a world, where all are honored, because we are all perfectly- made in the image of God.
Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.
 Prudom, Laura (July 12, 2014). “Amazon’s ‘Transparent’ Season 1 to Debut Late September
 Genesis 18
 Yevamot 64a, 64b
 Terms for Gender Diversity in Classical Jewish Texts by Rabbi Elliot Kukla, 2006 in Transtorah.com