Friday, December 14, 2012

Responding to the Senselessness

As the horrific tragedy that took place this morning at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT continues to unfold, my emotions are raw and my stomach churns.  How long will such senseless violence continue to disrupt the fabric of our nation; how many more innocents will need to die before we make sensible changes to our mental health system and our gun control laws (which would not magically end tragedies such as this, but would certainly help to curtail them)?

As I watch the news reports and the inevitable Facebook posting and posturing, I notice that there are the usual inaccuracies and updates as the media and law enforcement officials struggle to keep up with developing events.  One discrepancy that has arisen is the precise identity of the shooter.  Some outlets reported one name, though as I write, reports are coming in that the actual perpetrator may have been the brother of the man initially identified.

To this I say, "So what?"  Why do we need to know the identity of the shooter?  This only provides him, posthumously, with the aggrandizement and attention that he sought.  It may even inspire copycats who seek to make a name for themselves, no matter how grotesque the means to the end prove to be.  Better that we should hear about the victims- not out of any prurient interest or disrespect to their grieving families, but rather because this helps us understand that each of these lives cut short was a life filled with meaning and potential.  Knowing their names and their stories prevents us from shrugging this off as some unfortunate yet anonymous incident that we can absorb in a cavalier fashion with the rest of our daily news.  It makes it real, and, God willing, provokes us to respond, to finally say "No more!"

There's a Hebrew phrase, "y'mach shmo"- "may his name be blotted out."  It's usually reserved for the most reprehensible enemies of the Jewish people: Haman, Hitler, and the like, whose images can never be rehabilitated.  Let's adopt this stance for those who would slaughter innocents in movie theaters, shopping malls, colleges, and elementary schools-- "yimach sh'mam"- may their names be blotted out.  May they be denied even an iota of the publicity for which they hungered, may they rot namelessly and unlamented.

And may the memories of the righteous, whom we now recall as victims simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, be remembered eternally for blessing.

Monday, September 3, 2012

#BlogElul Wonder

I wrote in my first #BlogElul post about seeing the Perseid meteor shower with my son, Gabe, who is six.  Actually, after I woke him up, he went with my wife and most of the other campers to the basketball court in the middle of camp to view the meteor shower from a different perspective.  I stayed behind, because my daughter was asleep in the faculty guest house.  I heard this story later.

As they lay on the basketball court watching the stars, Gabe turned to his mother and asked, "Are these stars shining right now, or are we only seeing them after the star is gone?"

Since it was late at night, I don't think she really registered what he was asking.  But Briana Holtzman, assistant director of Camp Kalsman, remembered her liturgy...

Gabe has attended Shabbat services most weeks of his life ever since he was an infant.  Often, he has heard me read a poem by Hannah Senesh (as interpreted by Cantor Jeff Klepper and Rabbi Dan Freelander) as an introduction to the kaddish memorial prayer:

"There are stars up above
So far away
We only see their light long, long after the star itself is gone.
And so it is with people we loved
Their memories keep shining ever brightly
Though their time with us is done.
But the stars that light up the darkest night
These are the lights that guide us.
As we live our days, these are the ways we remember."

As Briana recognized, Gabe, in his sense of wonderment, was trying to make sense of this piece of liturgy, trying to draw a connection between the words he had heard and what he was witnessing.

These sparks of comprehension, as the words of our prayers come alive for us, are some of the most beautiful moments I know

Sunday, September 2, 2012

#BlogElul Health

I am grateful that my family and those whom I love are, for the most part, fairly healthy.

Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha'olam, asher b'yado nefesh kol chai v'ruach kol basar ish.

Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the universe, in Whose hands are the souls of all the living and the spirits of all flesh.  May you continue to bless us in the coming year with health and sustenance.

I pray for those whom I love who face infirmities of the mind, body, or spirit

Baruch Ata Adonai, Rofei hacholim.

Blessed are You, Adonai, Healer of the sick.  May You grant healing to all those who suffer.  May you grant wisdom and patience to their doctors and caregivers so that all who care for the ill may help to bring comfort and peace.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

#BlogElul Learning

A paraphrase of a Chassidic story:

A rebbe noticed that one of his students had his face buried deep in a machzor (a High Holiday prayerbook) and seemed to be ignoring the lesson at hand.

"Moshe," the teacher said, "What are you studying so intensely?"

"I'm sorry, rebbe," the student replied, "But the High Holidays are approaching and I must review the machzor to be sure that I am prepared."

"The mavhzor has not changed since last year.  You have.  You would be better served if you studied yourself."

Friday, August 31, 2012

#BlogElul Excuses

NPR's "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me" recently had an episode in which they listed a string of excuses that various politicians over the years had used to cover up their transgressions.  Since the show is meant as humorous entertainment, you'd be forgiven if you presumed that these were the invention of clever writers.  But they were, in fact, direct quotes from the figures involved.  For instance, Larry Craig, upon being arrested for allegedly soliciting an undercover officer in an airport restroom, blamed his "wide stance;"  David Dinkins, accused of tax evasion, insisted he had not broken the law, but rather that he had "failed to comply with the law."

It's easy to make excuses.  It's more comfortable to believe that the blame for some failure can be placed on an outside object, circumstance, or individual.  But as Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in us."  We cannot blame the fates or the cosmos when things go wrong, but must accept responsibility for our own actions.

It's a difficult task, to be sure, but when we set aside our excuses and admit our culpability and fallibility, we begin the healing that comes with teshuvah.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

#BlogElul Image

The little boy drew a picture of himself, painstakingly choosing the right crayons to accurately depict how he thought he looked.  When he finished, he stood back and admired his handiwork.  He was so proud of his effort that he begged his mother to let him come to her office the next day so that he might make copies of the picture to send to his grandparents, his aunts and uncles, and everyone else he knew.  His mother humored him and agreed.

The boy stood before the copy machine, lovingly placed the picture on the glass, and pushed the button to make a copy.  He removed the original, placed the copy on the glass, and pushed the button again.  He then removed that copy from the tray and repeated the cycle.

After 10 copies had been made in this fashion, the boy eyed the final copy with a sad look.  He held it up to the original and remarked to his mother, "This is a bad picture.  I can't even tell who I am anymore."

Often at this season we echo the boy's lament.  While the downgrading of our self-image is not due to the limitations of xerographic technologies, the result is the same.  We engage in self-examination and realize that we no longer recognize ourselves.  We can't tell who we are anymore.

But the cheshbon nefesh-- the soul searching-- that we engage in during this month of Elul in preparation for the holiday season, allows us to engage in mindful introspection.  It allows us to adjust those aspects of ourselves that are perhaps not quite as we might like them to be, and to put our best foot forward for the year ahead.  In this way we have an opportunity to make the outward image we project match the way we perceive ourselves in our hearts.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

#BlogElul Change

When Edith Bunker experiences menopause and the mood swings that go along with it in the All in the Family episode "Edith's Problem," Archie tries to be a supportive husband.  But soon he reaches his threshold, and shouts at Edith, "If you're going to have a change of life, do it now!  I'm giving you thirty seconds..." (The full episode, with an Emmy-winning script, is available at YouTube.  Search for "Edith's Problem.")

Change is rarely quick, or easy.  Some of us find ourselves committing to change each year, only to backslide eventually into the same familiar behavior.  The Mishnah does warn us not to do so deliberately, teaching "For the one who says I will sin and repent, and then sin again, Yom Kippur does not atone. (Yoma 8:9)"  But for those of us who make our best effort toward change, and still find that we are unable to make the change "stick," Yom Kippur affords us the opportunity to reexamine our past efforts, deepen our resolve, and challenge ourselves to be better in the future.

It won't come easy, but it's the hard things that are worth the effort.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

#BlogElul Memory

[At least] two influential Americans passed away in this past week.  Only one of the men I'm thinking of was likely a household name, but I would venture to guess that both played significant roles in the lives of Americans in my generation.

Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon, was, in the words of his family, "a reluctant American hero."  Nonetheless, he encouraged countless others to explore new frontiers, and to imagine possibilities that others might have dismissed as too difficult or utterly unattainable.  His memory is a blessing because he will continue to inspire a quest for scientific knowledge far into the future.

Jerry Nelson is probably less well known.  He was a seminal member of Jim Henson's Muppet troupe, and was the originator of such characters as Kermit's nephew Robin, Count von Count, Floyd (lead singer of the Electric Mayhem) and countless others.  With Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and the rest of the Muppets' crew, Jerry Nelson encouraged us all to stretch our imaginations and have fun.

The loss of any individual is a sad occasion, painful and lamentable to that person's circle of family and friends.  When someone who has spent time in the public eye passes, greater numbers may mourn the loss.  Memory allows us to assuage, however slightly, the pain of loss by allowing the deceased to endure.  As they live within our hearts and minds, they achieve eternal life.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

#BlogElul Prayer

Do I pray when I'm "Off the Clock?"  Of course.

I pray for health for myself, my family, and my loved ones.

I pray for enough time to accomplish all of the things that need to get done, and even some of the [not-as-essential] stuff I want to get done.

I pray that I'll finish all of the preparations for the High Holidays.

I pray for patience, and for control over my baser instincts and behaviors.

I pray that my children will inherit a world in which war, intolerance, and other scourges are unknown.

And I pray that someday, all the world will share in that last prayer, so that it may become obsolete.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

#BlogElul Shofar

Last year, we sent the above photos as part of our family greeting for the High Holidays.  In case you can't tell from the picture, the two shofarot on the left are toys.  We started with taking those pictures, then thought it would be funny to get shots of the kids with the huge shofar that you see the kids wielding on the right side of the collage.

Orli still doesn't quite have the hang of it, and puts the entire mouthpiece in her mouth, expecting the instrument to work like a whistle or party blower.  But Gabe, after posing diligently, asked if he could try to sound the shofar.  He put it to his lips and sounded a sustained tekiah gedolah that resonated through the entire neighborhood.

This year, sounding the shofar is one of his favorite parts about the High Holidays.  When we thought one of our veteran shofar-blowers at the congregation would not be available this year, Gabe eagerly asked if he could slot in (turns out the gentleman is keeping his place, but we'll find another opportunity for Gabe).

The point of the shofar is to awaken us; to make us aware of our surroundings and to heighten our senses so that we are prepared for the New Year.  Gabe's shofar blowing reminds me that the little boy is growing up, acquiring new skills and new instruments.  And I'd better stay alert if I don't want to miss enjoying it all.

Friday, August 24, 2012

#BlogElul Faith

Perhaps my favorite expression of what it means to struggle with faith is expressed by the Yiddish poet Aharon Zeitlin.  He writes:

"Praise Me," says God, "And I will know that you love Me."
"Curse Me," says God, "And I will know that you love Me."
"Praise Me or curse Me, and I will know that you love Me."

"Sing out My praises," says God.
"Raise your fist against me and revile," says God.
"Sing out praises or revile,
Reviling is also a kind of praise," says God.

"But if you sit fenced off in your apathy," says God,
"If you sit entrenched in, 'I don't give a hang,'" says God,
"If you look at the stars and yawn,
If you see suffering and don't cry out,
If you don't praise and you don't revile,
Then I created you in vain," says God.

Faith is being able to embrace God in the good times, but also knowing that if you curse God when times are bad, there will still be that Great and Powerful One waiting with open arms to welcome you back when you are ready to enter into relationship once again.

Shug says in The Color Purple, "I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it."  God wants people of faith to have encounters with the Divine-- good or bad, but not indifferent.

P.S. In my last post, I shared a picture of Count Von Count from Sesame Street.  Jerry Nelson, the muppeteer who originated that character and so many others, passed away yesterday.  May his memory be a blessing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#BlogElul Counting

We often count down to things we are eagerly anticipating: a vacation, a simcha, payday.  But most Jewish clergy I know approach the coming of Elul with a bit of fear and trepidation.  They are not eager to begin the countdown because they know that with each passing day of this month, they are one step closer to the High Holidays.
I bet you guessed I'd use this's here for illustrative purposes only and in no way is intended to impinge on the copyrights of Sesame Street, the Muppets, PBS, or related entities.

It is not that I, or any of my colleagues, dislikes the joy and opportunity heralded by the coming of the new year.  Rather, the panic that may grip us has to do with our sense of preparedness: are we truly ready to confront the awe and splendor of these sacred days?  Have we got our heads and our hearts in the proper place to address our needs for the coming year, let alone to help shepherd our congregation (who will likely turn out in the largest numbers we'll see all year) through the careful balance of celebration and contrition that befits this season?

I know that I still have sermon writing and the preparation of liturgical cues ahead of me, in addition to personal reflection and introspection.

I'm looking forward to being with the congregation.  I'm looking forward to apples and honey, and spiritual uplift.

So yes, I'm counting down.

But could we count a little slower, please?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

#BlogElul Intentions

I had the best of intentions when I started this blog earlier in the year.  Really.

I was going to write consistently, using this forum as an outlet for voicing my thoughts about the world: what gives me hope and raises my spirits, as well as what frightens or concerns me.  I would examine how faith plays a role in my life, and how I use it to make sense of our often non-sensical society.

I haven't written as frequently as I might have liked; I won't make excuses as to why.

But the thing about intentions, as Elul reminds us, is that when we go astray, when we fail to make good on our best intentions, we needn't throw in the towel.  We have opportunities to make teshuvah, to reexamine our intentions and look for new avenues that will allow us to bring them to fruition.

I can't promise that I'll be any better at this blogging stuff in the year ahead.

But at least I get to try.

Monday, August 20, 2012

#BlogElul Inventory

Taking a personal inventory, as we're called to do during the month of Elul, is difficult.  It takes courage to undergo the true self-examination that the season calls for, to honestly examine our faults and our strengths, and determine what are our potential areas for growth in the year ahead.

When I consider inventory, however, I think back to my college years.  For all four years of college, I worked at the campus bookstore in a variety of roles, including as a cashier and as a member of the "trade" book department (where you would find any non-textbooks that we stocked; since we were owned by Barnes and Noble, this section was pretty extensive).  Once a year, we would conduct a store-wide inventory.  While much of the counting was done by an outside firm, the store employees would be present to answer any questions, and to count the books themselves.

As a college student, I of course appreciated the chance to be paid time-and-a-half (and have lunch and dinner provided by my employer) without having to face any customers all day.  But I also enjoyed having the time to spend with my co-workers.  They were a diverse group, very different from the people with whom I otherwise socialized.

My direct supervisor was a Vietnam veteran who spoke openly of his struggles with PTSD.  Another colleague, an older woman, was a recent refugee from Yugoslavia who taught us of the conflict in her country well before most Americans had heard of it.  An African-American young man who lived in the projects in the heart of Chicago told us of his difficult home life.  A fellow cashier talked passionately about her involvement in her evangelical church, and I explained key tenets of Judaism to those who were interested.  These conversations opened my eyes and broadened my horizons.

Maybe that's what these inventory experiences have in common: if we enter such endeavors with our eyes, ears, and hearts open, we gain new understandings of ourselves and others.  This is how we grow.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

#BlogElul Return

I am fortunate enough to live in an area with minimal "light pollution;" because of the way that our house is situated in relation to our neighbors and in relation to the commercial district of our city, on most nights we can make out the major constellations.

But if I want to appreciate a true clear sky, I know of no locale in my general vicinity that rivals URJ Camp Kalsman.  Looking up into the endless darkness on a camp evening long after my children and the campers have drifted off to sleep, you can see a myriad of stars stretching on for what seems to be an eternity.  I was blessed to be there during this summer's Perseid meteor shower late in the evening of August 11, and it was quite a majestic sight to behold.

There is a prayer in the Reform siddur Mishkan Tefillah that I read on a fairly regular basis at Shabbat morning services or B'nai Miitzvah.  It is an interpretation of the Hoda'ah (Thanksgiving) prayer, and has the refrain Modim anachnu lach (we give thanks to You).

Certainly I acknowledge, and am grateful for, God's handiwork in creation and what I sense as God's continued presence in our world.  Yet occasionally I find it difficult to dig within my heart and soul and adequately express the awe and wonderment that is meant to be evoked by the Hoda'ah prayer.

There is a paragraph in the poetic interpretation that states, "For the expanding grandeur of creation, worlds known and unknown, galaxies beyond galaxies filling us with awe and challenging our imaginations."

As I looked up at that endless sky, as I woke my son from his sleep to watch the meteor shower with me, I mouthed a silent "Modim anachnu lach."  And my heart soared.

For I once again understood the prayer.

I had returned to my wonderment at the awesomeness of God's creation.

My friend Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who inspired me to begin this blog with her #BlogExodus project is at it again with #BlogElul, which encourages bloggers to write on different themes during the Hebrew month of Elul to help prepare for the High Holidays.  I'll be trying to blog as frequently as I can this month; follow the hashtag for other writers' thoughts during the month.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Tribe I Don't Want to be a Part Of

Remember "Members Only" jackets?  In the 1980s, they were all the rage, perhaps because of the aura of exclusivity connoted by the brand name.  We often covet that which seems off-limits or forbidden to us.

Maybe that's the explanation for the dismayingly out-of-touch decision announced recently by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to continue denying membership and leadership positions to LGBTQ individuals.  Maybe the leadership of BSA feels that this exclusionary policy will position them as an elite organization and lead to a dramatic increase in people seeking to affiliate with local troops and dens.

I wish I could believe that were true.  Instead, I think that the BSA is being ensnared by the bull-headed bigotry of some individuals in its leadership, and thus are missing opportunities to embrace and train a whole cadre of future leaders with excellent potential.  The BSA reaffirmed its position (which has been in place since 2004) after a closed-door two year "policy review."  In spite of the fact that a number of board members have publicly repudiated the policy, the review panel chose to maintain the status quo within the BSA.

I think that the skill set that young men derive from being part of the boy scouts is laudable.  I have had the honor of serving as an advisor to young men seeking their "Aleph" and "Ner Tamid" badges (two of the Jewish emblems available to scouts).  I have written letters of recommendation for individuals who are applying to be Eagle Scouts.  I admire the leadership, responsibility, community service, and character that these candidates embody.  I don't condemn the boys who choose to involve themselves in scouting.  I don't even condemn the institution of scouting.  Rather, I condemn the leadership of the movement that continues to believe that "homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Scout Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed."

The Scout Oath states, "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight."  The Scout Law, in turn, states, "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent."  I know gay people who could very ably uphold all those tenets, just as I know many heterosexuals that would not fit that bill.  Sexual orientation provides absolutely no litmus test for the content of one's character. 

The rabbis of the Mishnah spent quite a bit of time trying to define what exactly it was that determined an individual's moral makeup.  Simon Ben Zoma, a second century sage, taught, "Who is wise? One who learns from every person...Who is honored? One who honors others."  Perhaps if we could learn from such precepts; perhaps if we could stop fearing those who might be different from ourselves; perhaps if we could learn to honor all of humanity, then the world would be a better place.

This Shabbat, we conclude the reading of Bamidbar with the double portion Matot-Masei.  In it, we get some insight into the workings of the Israelite tribes.  Rarely, if ever, were the twelve tribes of Israel completely united in peace and harmony.  More often than not, they were a loose confederation, unified by some sense of historical kinship and the memory of a shared exodus experience.  So, when the tribes of Reuben and Gad (and half of the tribe of Manasseh) see desirable, arable land on the east side of the Jordan, they petition for the right to settle there, rather than cross into Canaan.

Moses is understandably upset by this request.  In essence he says, "This is not the kind of Israelite community I want to be a part of: one in which brother abandons brother in a quest for personal gain and comfort."  His scolding comes with negotiation, and in the end the two-and-a-half tribes agree to enter Canaan alongside their fellow Israelites, helping to secure the land for them before returning to their desired homesteads.

I believe we are called to act in a similar manner when we face unjust situations such as the BSA decision.  We should say, "This is not the kind of society we want to live in: one based on bigotry, discrimination, and fear."  We should work to educate and advocate so that all may have the opportunity to participate fully in the institutions that contribute to the fabric of our nation.

To paraphrase the words of the old Gates of Prayer, we pray that the day may come when narrow-minded injustices "shall give way to integrity and goodness, when superstition shall no longer enslave the mind...O may all, created in Your image, become one in spirit and one in friendship."

Ken Y'hi Ratzon.  May this be Your will.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Superman Sam vs. the Fiery Serpents

A few weeks ago, my wife Jody and I were blessed to be joined by some of our family and friends to celebrate the graduation of our son, Gabe, from his kindergarten class at JDS, the Jewish Day School.  We watched with pride as he sang his Hebrew and English songs, and he and his teachers reflected upon how much he and his classmates had learned and done over the course of the year.  It was amazing and emotional for me to think about how quickly six years have already passed, and to look forward to the further growth that, God willing, lies ahead.  Kein ahora, we are blessed with a bright, happy, and healthy little boy.

As we were wrapping up at graduation, I couldn’t help but think of my dear friends, classmates, and colleagues Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer of Chicago.  A day or two earlier I had received a heart-wrenching text message from Phyllis.  They were in the hospital with their six-year-old, Sammy.  He had just been diagnosed with leukemia.

Sammy and Gabe are just a few weeks different in age.  Though geography dictates that they don’t see one another nearly as often as we might like, they enjoy playing together, and they seem pretty indistinguishable from one another in terms of interests, temperament, and the like.  Yet through a fluke in cellular structure, Sammy’s whole world (and that of his family) has suddenly changed,

This is the first opportunity I’ve had to preach on a Friday night since I learned about Sammy’s illness.  He and his family have been on my mind a lot.  But the purpose of this sermon is not to bring you down.  Because Sammy is a fighter, as are his parents, and though this is certainly a rough period for them, they are determined to face it with courage, hope, and strength.  Sammy has been dubbed “Superman Sam” and has collected messages and photos of support from all over the country and across the globe.  Hundreds, if not thousands, or even millions of people of all faiths all over the country are praying for him; you may have noticed that I mentioned his name during our Mi Shebeirach prayers a few moments ago.

Sammy’s story resonates with me not just because of the love I have for him and his family.  It also speaks to me because it helps me make some sense of this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s portion is known as Chukat.  It derives its name from the Hebrew word “chok,” meaning “law.”  The rabbis of old, in discussing the various mitzvot of the Torah, actually drew a distinction between two types: chukim and mishpatim.  Both terms refer to the rules or laws of scripture.  But mishpatim have explanations attached to them: observe Shabbat in order to appreciate that God rested during the work of creation; treat the stranger kindly because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  Chukim, on the other hand, have no rationale given.  We’re supposed to observe them just because God said so.  Many of them, through a 21st century lens, like the red heifer ritual we read about in this week’s parasha, make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

No sense whatsoever.  That certainly applies to Sammy.  Why is one six year old in a hospital room losing his hair, while others are out playing, going to camp, enjoying the activities of summer?  No. Sense. Whatsoever.

But here’s the thing you need to know about the Sommer family.  They’re not taking this lying down.  Sure, they’re sad, scared, and angry.  Yes, they have lost all sense of “normalcy” and have had their entire routine disrupted.  They have probably had more than their fair share of tantrums and tears.  But they are doing their darnedest to handle this extremely difficult period with poise, grace, hope, and even occasional humor.

That’s a lesson of Chukat also; one that, God-willing, most of us will never be directly tested by:  when you are in a lousy situation, when the pressures of life are building around you, try not to make snap decisions; try not to respond in the heat of the moment.  I refer here to Moses, who, faced with rebellious cries from thirsty Israelites finds himself unable to function according to his usual paradigm.  Instead of talking to a rock to gently coax water from it, he strikes it in anger.  It has the desired effect, but it has its consequences as well.

Remember I told you that Sam has been nicknamed “Superman Sam”?  Well, certainly he does his best to exemplify that character.  But, at the end of the day, Superman is a fictional creation.  No real human being can be totally impervious to pain, emotion, and other human frailties.  Not even Moses.

The beauty of our Torah is that it presents us with characters who, at the end of the day, are just like you and me.  They have moments of triumph and moments of upset.  They have moments when they do big and grandiose things, and moments when they really foul things up.

Each of the fifty-four weekly Torah portions is paired with a Haftarah, a passage from prophetic literature that has some thematic tie to the message of the Torah text.  Some of the connections often seem a bit tenuous.  This week, we read a story of a judge named Yiftach (or Jephthah, as many English bibles render his name).  Yiftach is lesser known than judges such as Samson, Deborah, or Gideon, but his story follows a similar arc: he rises from humble roots just as the Israelites are most in need of a hero, and leads his people to an unexpected victory over their enemies.  He is able to rise above his hurt from having been despised and rejected in his youth to serve as a leader when the need arises.  In this way, his story mirrors that of Moses, as both are able to put the needs of the community above the needs of self.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the (incidentally) Jewish creators of Superman may have drawn from this common biblical trope when they created their character.  They made his alter-ego, the mild-mannered Clark Kent, the epitome of humility, and reminded us that even heroes have weaknesses (in Superman’s case, of course, it was kryptonite).  At the same time, the character inspires us to continually strive to soar and reach new heights.  This is why Superman is a fitting moniker for my friend Sammy.  Because I know that he will reach new heights.  I know that he has great things ahead of him.

If you want to be hero, by the way, to Sammy and to others who are facing leukemia and other illnesses, you can donate blood, or sign up to be on the bone marrow registry.  Both of these are small ways that you can help superheroes like Sammy continue the fight.

Back to our Torah portion… after the incident with the rock and the water, a plague briefly descends upon the Israelite people.  Fiery serpents appear and inflict many Israelites with dangerous bites.  Moses orders the construction of a copper serpent, and miraculously, when people look upon it, they are healed.

This strange incident is actually very important for the Israelites, for us, and for individuals like Sammy.  It’s easy to focus on the present, and the things are troubling or frightening us.  That’s not to discount the very real threats that are sometimes presented: fiery serpents that bite at our heels and cancerous cells that invade our bloodstream are nothing to sneeze at!  But if we look forward, we can visualize a solution; we can visualize healing.  The rabbis teach that in looking upon the copper serpent, the Israelites had to turn their eyes heavenward, reminding them to stop kvetching and return to trust in God.  When we look upward and forward, we can see a brighter future.

This is what I see for Sammy.  I visualize healing.  I visualize a happy and healthy young man playing once again with his healthy siblings and my healthy children and all his other friends—and please, God, may they all be and remain healthy.  I picture celebrating his Bar Mitzvah, his graduation, and other significant milestones.  And if you are holding someone in your heart tonight who is facing illness or hardship, let’s add them to this picture too.  Because, with God’s will, we can all be supermen and superwomen, living in a world of health, happiness, and peace.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Prayer for Healing

Seattle has recently reached an unfortunate milestone: the city has had more homicides so far this year than in the entirety of 2011.  Last Wednesday, a mentally unstable individual shot and killed four people at a cafe where he had been denied service a day earlier.  Somehow, he then made his way across town, where he shot and killed another woman before stealing her car.

At the time of Wednesday's shootings, I was gathered with clergy of various denominations at a meeting discussing the intersection of faith and social action.  As I returned to the office and learned of the tragedies, I reached out to others in the community to try to respond to the violence, and rekindle peace and hope in the city.

Thanks to a colleague at a local ecumenical council, on Sunday evening we were able to gather with more than 200 citizens, the mayor, and clergy of various stripes: Catholic, Evangelical, Methodist, AME, Episcopal, Jewish, and Muslim.  Each of us in our own way offered prayers for healing and peace, beginning at the Episcopal cathedral and then moving in a candlelight processional to the Catholic cathedral a few miles away.

Here is the meditation I offered; it was but one of several comments delivered that evening.  We pray that our words did not fall on deaf ears, and that healing will come soon.

The Jewish memorial prayer begins with the words “El Malei Rachamim: God, full of compassion.”  This is as much an appellation for the Divine as it is a prayer…when we reach out in our hour of need, our moment of grief, we pray that there may be a compassionate Presence who can guide us, comfort us, and bring us peace. But God alone cannot heal this city.  There is no magical miraculous salve that will rain down from the heavens to assuage our fears, restore calm, reunite us with those who have been so violently torn from our midst. We have heard the numbers: more homicides in the city so far this year than there were during the entire past year.  These are frightening numbers.  But those individuals cut down in the past several months were not mere numbers.  They were people: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and neighbors.  All had dreams and aspirations; many were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
 The Jewish tradition reminds us that after each day of creation as documented in the Book of Genesis, God reflects on that day’s handiworks and pronounces them “good.”  This is true of every element of creation except for one: human beings.  The rabbis imagined asking God why this was the case.  And, in their account, God responds, “Because I have not yet perfected you; because your calling is to perfect yourselves, and to perfect the world.  All other things are completed; they cannot grow.  But humankind is not complete; you have yet to grow.  Then, I will call you good.” We have yet to grow.  But over time we will learn to do so.  We will come to recognize that violence is not the answer; love is.  We will live out the word of the prophet who dreamed of the future day of peace: “Violence shall no longer be heard in your land; desolation and destruction within your borders.” We pray that the day of which Isaiah spoke will come speedily.  We pray for comfort, for healing, and for peace. Baruch Ata Adonai, m’takein l’vavot sh’vurim, Adon harachamim, Oseh ha-shalom. Praised are You, our Eternal God, Repairer of broken hearts, Master of mercy, Who bestows peace.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

When I'm 64...

I've been away from the blog for a while, and I do intend to get back to it (I'm finding it's difficult without the steady themes given by the #BlogExodus project)...

Today is the 64th birthday of the State of Israel, which has invited many comments/ jokes on the internet linked to Paul McCartney's song "When I'm 64."  Here's my effort at a couple of verses...enjoy, and good luck getting the melody out of your head!

Now that she's older, been 'round the block, many years gone by
Let us sing for Yisrael a valentine
List the reasons why she's so fine
This land is my land, eretz shell, tamid l'dor vador.
Let's make it clear now, let's give a cheer now: Israel's 64!

From Mount Hermon down to the Red Sea, there's so much to love.
See the Kotel and leave God a note,
At the Dead Sea, lean back and float
In Herziliya, in Tel Aviv, by Kinneret's shore,
Let's make it clear now, let's give a cheer now: Israel's 64!

Translation: My land, always, from generation to generation

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Future of Judaism

In the spring of 1998, when I interviewed for admission to the rabbinical program of the Hebrew Union College, one of the questions that the panel asked me had to do with what would be the greatest threat to Jewish continuity and the Jewish future.

Fourteen years later, I think my answer would be the same: the divisiveness of different Jewish movements threatens to destroy us from within.

At the time of my interview, I was not entirely sure where on the spectrum of Judaism my personal beliefs and practices fell.  Though I had been raised in a Reform household, I had exposed myself to the practices of different denominations of Judaism.  I wasn't sure that some of the innovations of Reform Judaism weren't being made merely for the sake of innovation.  This, I feared, would only grow the chasm between the various movements.

Nowadays, I would point my finger elsewhere as well: Orthodox Jews who conflate minhag (custom) with halachah (law) to assert that certain actions are forbidden, or that certain individuals will never be fully accepted into our community.  Jews who feel that the only way to show compassion for Palestinians is to excoriate and denigrate Israel.  Jews who find that the services and activities of their synagogue don't appeal to or inspire them, and rather than working within to foment change, simply stop attending or affiliating.  I could keep on going...

But while I have my trepidation about the future of Judaism, I also have great hope.  We are seeing wonderful innovative approaches to worship and programming, both within the mainstream movements, and from so-called "post-denominational" corners.  We are seeing the hegemony of Orthodoxy in Israel, which formerly came at the expense of more liberal forms of expression, beginning to erode.  We are seeing more avenues for inclusion of women, gays and lesbians, and non-traditional families.

At our sedarim, we will invite Elijah into our midst, in the hopes that he will herald a messianic age.  But we need not wait for his arrival.  We have the power to transform the world now, to begin building a more promising future.


Note: This is the conclusion of the #BlogExodus project.  I do plan to continue my blogging, but I'll be taking a brief hiatus for Passover.  I wish everyone a "Zissen Pesach," a Happy Passover.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Is This Night Different From All Others?

The Passover seder is a time for questions.  Beyond the traditional four of the Mah Nishtanah, we encourage participants to be inquisitive about the circumstances surrounding this holiday.  Four times in the Torah, the text tells us that children for generations to come will ask about the meaning of this day (giving rise to the legend of the four children), so ask we must!

This year, I find myself asking a different sort of question, inspired by--yet transcending--the traditional Passover texts.  I am wondering what it will take, how many commemorations of our Festival of Freedom we will need to observe, before all individuals on this planet will enjoy the same freedoms, the same opportunities, the same hope and optimism for the future.

Yesterday was the yahrtzeit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you are a student of history, you may recall that Dr. King happened to be in Memphis, where his life tragically ended, in support of African-American sanitation workers who were on strike for better working conditions.  Presciently, Dr. King delivered what has come to be known as his "Mountaintop Speech," highlighting the achievements that had already been won, while also looking forward to the future that he recognized he might not be around to see.

Dr. King said, in part:
we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it...if something isn't done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed...We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying -- We are saying that we are God's children. And that we are God's children, we don't have to live like we are forced to live.
The problems that Dr. King preached about in the Civil Rights movement are problems that defined the relationship between Egyptians and Israelites in the days leading up to the Exodus; they define the conflict between those who support George Zimmerman and those who support Trayvon Martin; they define the upcoming presidential election in this country and they define politics on the global stage.

And the question remains, what will you do, what will each of us do, to shift the discussion, to change the problem.  How can this night indeed be different from all other nights?