Let It Go – Parshat Lech Lecha 5780

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There are different kinds of apologies. Some we make as a way to acknowledge that we’ve done something seriously wrong and to take ownership of our actions with intention to change our ways. Other apologies are much less formal and serious, like an apology for being late or for stepping on someone’s toes. Then there are the shallow apologies that don’t really mean anything, like a three-year-old who knows the only way to get dessert is to apologize for something, even if they don’t even know what they’re apologizing for. 

But what’s powerful about the ability to apologize is that it also puts the recipient of the apology in the position to forgive. This week we read Parshat Lech Lecha. Parshat Lech Lecha brings us finally into the narrative of Abraham and Sarah and the rest of our history as the Jewish people. The text begins with (then) Avram and Sarai leaving their land, the land that they knew and felt comfortable in, to go to Egypt and follow God’s command. The text continues with their ongoing problems in Egypt and ends with their name changes from Avram to Avraham (Abraham in English) and Sarai to Sarah.

One piece of this story has always intrigued me. God comes to Abraham and gives him the message that he should go and leave this land he’s known for the place that God will show him. Once on this journey, he finds himself under the rule of a foreign king, and the first thing Abraham does is ask Sarah to lie for him. He creates this lie out of fear that the foreign king will kill Sarah if he knows she is Abraham’s wife, but nonetheless, Abraham’s first act in the Torah is asking someone to lie for him.

How do we reconcile this with the image of Abraham our forefather, the one who we refer to first when listing Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Does this act befit the father of this great nation of people and the one whose children number more than the stars in the sky? Why do we forgive Abraham?

Perhaps it’s not because Abraham learns his lesson (although he does work toward living an honest, better life after that). Instead, maybe the lesson is for us. Abraham isn’t a perfect role model, and he certainly made mistakes along the way, but perhaps that’s to teach us forgiveness and humanity. Human beings make mistakes. We mess up, sometimes we try to cover it up, eventually we get found out (look to the example of Adam and Eve), then hopefully we make amends, accept the consequences, and move on. 

We live in a world in which the expectation of perfection is extremely high. We hold our leaders, teachers, and preachers to a standard of perfection that just isn’t attainable. Human beings make mistakes. Yes, some are unforgivable and irreparable. But some simply need an apology and the ability to move on and learn from the mistake.

In the end, forgiveness is what moves us forward – forgiveness of ourselves and others. Parshat Lech Lecha reminds us that if we never allowed Abraham to be flawed, the great nation he started might never have had a chance to exist at all. 

 

Too Quiet – Parshat Noach 5780

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If you’ve ever been responsible for a group of children or, let’s be honest, even just a single child, you know that eerie, nervous feeling that comes when their playspace is too quiet. At first, there’s that moment when you think, “Wow, it’s so quiet! How nice that the children are playing so well and aren’t screaming at me or each other.” Then, seconds later, the panic sets in when you suspect that the quiet was the sound of mischief and the kids trying to hide the fact that they were doing things you might not approve of. On the one hand, it’s great that they appear to be working together on something. On the other hand, what if what they’re working on is something they shouldn’t be doing?

This dilemma is what I imagine God feels this week in Parshat Noach. Parshat Noach details the misbehavior of the people who inhabit the earth in this pre-Judaism time. We read about Noah as a beacon of hope among the despicable people of his town. God instructs Noah to build the ark, put the animals on it, and escape destruction under God’s protection during the flood. Noah’s story is capped off with a covenant between God and humankind to never again destroy the world. Unfortunately, the beauty of the rainbow is quickly tainted as we learn of the misdeeds committed by a new civilization in trying to reach up closer to God. 

God has no sooner hit the reset button on humanity than the people get “quiet,” working together to build a tower upwards. On the positive side, this tower, the Tower of Bavel, was the result of the people uniting for a common purpose. However, that purpose was also filled with the wrong intention. Instead of building something that would move them forward as a society, they built upward out of a self-centered need to touch the heavens. 

Consequently, God scrambles the languages of the people so they can’t understand one another, and thus chaos ensues and they can’t really figure out how to work together on the tower or any other project. 

The ability to communicate is critical for productivity, for us as individuals to move forward together. What we learn from Parshat Noach is that it’s not enough simply to work together. The work has to be a common cause for good. When we build together, work to understand each other and communicate clearly we can change the world for good. When we approach these group efforts with the right intentions, we can literally change the world.

I’m ME! – Parshat Bereshit 5780

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When Matan was two, he went through this beautiful phase of high self-centeredness and low self-awareness, as is appropriate for a two-year-old. With his long hair and love of dress-up, he was unphased by gender norms or stereotypes. If you asked him who loved him the most in the world, he would answer loud and proud, “Matan, me!” If you asked him whether he was a boy or a girl, he’d yell “I’m Matan!” Children have this wonderful ability to love themselves and others without much judgment. These moments made me smile because my little love wasn’t looking for differences between people, he was looking to be the best version of himself that he could. 

The Torah begins without delineating between gender as well. This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the first portion of the Torah. We are wowed with the story of creation, the time and care God put into creating each day, each being exactly as God wanted. We learn about the first people and their experience in the Garden of Eden: how they learned to build, grow, and be together. The Torah continues with the story of Cain and Abel, the first sibling rivalry gone terribly awry, and the very real consequences put into place after each of these events. At the very beginning of the Torah, we’re introduced to God as the parent, creating life and making sure everything has its own place.

In creation, God does not make any distinction in gender while creating animals. There is no list of boy cows and girl cows. There are simply cows. It isn’t until God moves on to the creation of human beings that gender is first introduced. The Eitz Chayim commentary offers that the reason for this is because it’s one way of differentiating ourselves from other creatures.

What’s interesting to note is we’re taught that the main distinction between other animals and us is that we’re created in God’s image, which is without gender. In other words, human beings were created to be different and unique, and yet simultaneously equal to each other and in our likeness to the “image” of God. The Talmud sees the difference between divine creation and basic replication through the example of minting. A king might cast coins from the same die, and they would all come out exactly the same. On the other hand, God creates human beings from the same basic mold, but each one, while still carrying the same spark of the divine, is wholly different. 

Parshat Bereshit reminds us to look for the unique, divine characteristics in each person we meet. Perhaps we should even return to the simple, sweet two-year-old definition of identity: we love ourselves first and celebrate the unique characteristics that make us exactly who we need to be.

 

Finding Yourself – Yom Kippur 5780

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This is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur, October 9, 2019. You can listen using the player below or read the text.

What you may not know is that I was very hesitant to join this group. Ruth Messinger, the Global Ambassador for AJWS, was gracious enough to write the forward to Pirkei Imahot, the book I co-authored with Lois Shenker. And not long after we finished the book, Ruth invited me to apply to the program. I turned her down. Why? My list of reasons was long: I had a small baby who was still nursing, I was too busy, I’m not justice minded enough, I don’t do well travelling internationally. I probably had a few more “I can’ts” in there just to make my point. So I politely declined and asked to be thought of the next year. I quickly put this opportunity out of my mind, thinking it just wasn’t right for me. 

I then spent the next year teaching the beautiful text Ruth herself had written as the introduction to our book. I want to share her words with you, because they continue to inspire me to this day. She wrote:

I work in and outside the Jewish community to make social change and create a greater degree of justice in the world. What I have learned from this experience is: “We cannot retreat to the luxury of being overwhelmed.” 

I know many Jews who are motivated to act for others but not sure how to proceed and also many who are activists working for social change who become discouraged and cut back or stop being involved. They talk about the frustratingly slow pace at which change occurs, how many setbacks arise, how many different issues and challenges there are competing for their attention.

Often, people say that it is too much, that they are overwhelmed because they cannot do everything, they cannot do anything. I certainly reassure them we all feel this way some of the time, but to feel or be overwhelmed and use that as an excuse to move away from work for social justice is a convenient out. It is a luxury we simply cannot allow ourselves to enjoy when we know there are human beings in trouble, in need of our not retreating.

It is our responsibility to work through the feeling of being overwhelmed, find ways in which we can make a difference, and remember our tradition teaches that to save one life is to save the world.

It’s a powerful message. And each time I quoted these words, I felt a twinge inside me. I was retreating to my luxury. I felt too busy, too unsure, too needed by my family to let myself even try to understand how I could be a part of the greater good in our world. Ruth’s teaching reminded me of my favorite teaching from Pirkei Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.” 

I can’t solve every problem, but I must try.

My friends, we live in a world where there are daily reminders of how much work there is to do in order to make this a world in which I want to raise my children. It’s a world that can feel more broken than whole, a world where the news leads with hate and violence, and where fear and ignorance too often reign. It was because of this that I took the leap. I agreed to apply and, if accepted, take this journey.

To say the trip was life changing sounds like hyperbole, but it’s true. On a very basic level, I learned some things about myself that I had completely forgotten since becoming a mother. I remembered how much I like to read, how much I really do enjoy travel, and that, when necessary, I can pack lightly. That one shocked me the most. 

Most importantly, I found out what it means to have moral courage. Moral courage is the courage to take action for moral reasons, despite the risk of adverse consequences. Courage is required to take action even in the face of doubts or fears about the consequences. Which means it’s different than bravery. And it’s different than the Jewish value of chesed, of kindness. These can be spontaneous. Moral courage involves deliberation or careful thought.

Atticus Finch, perhaps the greatest moral compass in American literature, offers this insightful explanation of courage to his son Jem. “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

Throughout history, we can point to examples of moral courage. From Rosa Parks’ decision to sit firmly in her seat, to Oskar Shindler’s dedication to his workers, we can see what happens when we act from a place of moral courage. When you see what’s ahead, and you proceed anyway.

In Guatemala I met with superheroes like this, men and women, who exhibit moral courage on a daily basis. The safety and security in Guatemala is rather tenuous now, particularly during Morales’ continued state of siege. Due to this, I am not sharing the names of people or organizations. We were guided by the in-country consultant for AJWS. He wove his own story into the history of the armed conflict of Guatemala. The effects of the Cold War reached all the way to his village, and it was burned to the ground. The consultant and his family fled into the jungle, where they lived for seven months, moving every few days, and then into a camp in Mexico where they stayed for 12 years. He shared that only he, one brother, and his father survived their ordeal; other brothers, his grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins all perished. He left his work investigating war crimes in the hardest hit areas, the ones that had experienced “unbelievable” atrocities, to join the work of AJWS. He is the direct contact for 19 organizations funded through AJWS who are fighting for justice, equality, democracy, and basic rights throughout Guatemala. 

Two other partners at an AJWS grantee organization told of their extraordinary and courageous work investigating and reporting on what is actually happening on the ground, rather than what’s reported in the mainstream media. The AJWS grantee has a widespread network throughout the country which uses technology in innovative and brilliant ways. These two work tirelessly as journalists to seek justice and share the truth of life in Guatemala throughout the entire country. Their network of journalists risk their lives every day to share that truth and expose injustice. They do it because it is the only way to ensure the world knows what truth is. 

I want to share with you the words of Dr. Rabbi Aryeh Cohen. He was a professor of mine in rabbinical school, but was also going through his ordination at the same time I was, so it was an honor to share the bima with him at graduation in his dual roles as both teacher and student. He wrote:

There is a great word . . . in the Rabbinic tradition: taromet. The word taromet shares a root with the word for thunder: ra’am. Taromet is the reaction which is sanctioned by a court when a person has been harmed in a way that is not legally actionable, and yet she has been morally wronged. Taromet, or righteous rage, does not carry with it any legal remedy, aside from communal vindication in one’s outrage. Therefore: righteous indignation.

The contemporary occurrence of taromet, is the moment when you recognize that your understanding of justice has run up against an immoral situation. When workers are legally paid a salary so low that they cannot afford to feed and shelter themselves. When undocumented immigrants and their children are exploited for their work but are disenfranchised politically, and ultimately criminalized. In whatever issue, taromet, righteous indignation, occurs when you are forced to compare your understanding of justice with the reality of a situation, and you find that the reality does not stand up to scrutiny. 

At that moment you are faced with the next question. What am I willing to do about this? The answer to this question can be anything from “nothing” through clicking on an email to joining a demonstration, to voting, to participating in an act of civil disobedience. Deciding to take that action is the “Here I am” moment. The French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, has suggested that the statement hineni signals an opening of oneself to the Other. “Here I am to respond to your suffering.” The hineni or “here I am” moment is the moment at which you realize that the jarring dissonance between the reality of injustice and the demands of justice comprise an obligation for you to act. The hineni moment is the move from “wow this sucks, somebody should do something” to “I am one of the people who have to do something.”

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the power of presence. I asked you to think about how you will answer the question of Ayeka – where are you – with Hineini – I am here, I am present, I am ready. 

Today, on our day of eternal judgment, the Yom HaDin, I encourage you to affirm your answer. Are you here? In a world where we see injustice nearly every day, how will you take a stand? Will you work to combat homelessness in our own city? Will you join us to cook for Outside In each month helping to prepare meals for homeless youth and other marginalized people? Will you participate in Soup to the Streets in the winter months providing warm soup and sandwiches to tent cities? Will you take a stand and stand up for our environment? Will you share your voice against the crisis of the Rohingya people and other genocides in the work that Never Again Coalition does? Will you allow your conscience to be moved by the dire situation at our own borders, not just fighting for due process for asylum, but also to change our policies abroad so that the corrupt governments around the world, whose people are fleeing, will consider the lives and dignity of their own citizens and create countries people want to remain in instead of running from?

Hillel famously teaches us, also in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?” 

How can I stand with you? I encourage you to email me after the holiday and let me know what stand you will take. I’d be honored to connect you with others doing this work.

In this moment, we turn towards our community to hold one another as we recall the memories of those we have loved and who no longer walk with us physically on our journeys with Yizkor. The words of the memorial prayer read “In loving testimony to their lives, I pledge tzedakah to help perpetuate ideals important to them.” It is through our deeds, our moral courage to stand up for justice that our loved ones legacy lives on.  

You don’t have to do it all, and in fact you can’t do it all. But you can summon the courage to act. Remember, moral courage isn’t about how many good deeds you can do. It’s about knowing that the task list before us is impossible, and starting anyway. We cannot retreat to the luxury of being overwhelmed.

Listen To Me – Parshat Ha’azinu 5780

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I find that my least successful moments in life are when I’m too emotionally worked up to consider my words thoughtfully, and instead I scream, yell, cry, or just whine. I should actually heed the words I use with my children: “I can understand you much better when you’re calm.” Listening can’t be forced. Trying to force someone to listen to you is like trying to force someone to love you. It just doesn’t work that way.

Throughout the Torah, God is giving rules and asking the Israelites, or Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob, or Moses to listen as they navigate the nation through the journey of life. This week we read the penultimate Torah portion, Parshat Ha’azinu, which has the special honor of being the last section of Torah read on Shabbat morning. Parshat Ha’azinu is a poem which warns of the negative behavior of the Israelites and explains the blessings that will befall them with the good behavior they are capable of. The text ends with Moses ascending the mountain into the clouds as he takes his leave of the Israelite nation. The parshah is the link between generations, between new and old leadership, and between living on earth (in the land of Israel), and living with God (on top of the mountain in the heavens).  

The text begins, “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak.” If you imagine the scene, it’s Moses’s final moment with the people. He’s sharing his vision with them and his faith in God. The people, knowing how close they might be to entering the Promised Land, are likely boisterous, loud, dancing, screaming, excited for the moment. And there’s Moses at the top of the mountain, shouting “LISTEN, LISTEN!” Getting all those people to quiet down could not have been easy.

Ha’azinu begs of us not just to listen to ourselves and to others, but to listen even when we’re irrational. And what an appropriate message near the end of the Torah: this part of the story is over, so were you listening? Were you paying attention? And how will you be a better listener the next time around?