Cause and Effect – Parshat Noach 5781

One of the parts of parenting that I struggle with the most is when my children’s actions have negative consequences, and they don’t understand they’ve brought it upon themselves. Because they are not developmentally ready to make that connection, they have no understanding that they played a role in causing those results. Instead, they blame me.

For example, I’ll tell the kids it’s time to go up stairs and get ready for bed. We set a timer, knowing that if it goes off before they’re ready for bed, that means we’re out of time for stories. The idea is to beat the timer to ensure you get a story. But of course they play around, dawdle, complain, do anything but get ready for bed. I gently remind them that the timer has started and if they don’t start listening and moving, there will be no story. In my mind, the expectations are very clearly set, but inevitably the timer goes off without finishing bedtime preparations, and we don’t have time for a book. Cue the tantrum from the children and my “you did this to yourself” conclusion that they can’t quite internalize.

While we may have a better grasp of situations and our roles as we mature, we still do this to ourselves as adults. Yes, sometimes our struggles have outside causes, but sometimes we have no one to blame but ourselves. Parshat Noach, our Torah portion this week, carries this message with it. 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. 

As we read the story of the flood, God is very clear about why the flood is necessary: “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them; I am about to destroy them with the earth.” In other words, God reminds Noah that civilization brought this on themselves. Their behavior, the lack of rule following, the unethical, immoral, and nasty actions brought on this flood.

The lesson seems clear: we reap what we sow. Displacement of peoples, pollution, the healthcare crisis – these issues are ones we’ve brought on ourselves, and we have to change them ourselves. While my 4- and 7-year-old may not be able to fully grasp this, Parshat Noach reminds us that as adults, we are responsible for our actions and what happens because of them, positive and negative. 

The Rest of Shabbat – Parshat Bereshit 5781

A year ago after the High Holidays, I found myself completely run down, and I ended up with pneumonia. I knew it was coming. From the first cough just prior to Rosh Hashanah, I could tell this was going to be more than a cold or the “just a virus” my physician thought it was. However, instead of resting, I pushed forward. After all, I had services to lead and programs to run; it was the holiday season, and that’s no time for a rabbi to be sick. So, I coughed my way through Yom Kippur and pushed my way through Sukkot and Simchat Torah while nursing pulled muscles from coughing. Finally, my body had enough. In the midst of teaching on a Wednesday night, I started shivering. The 102-degree fever had set in, and my body was done. In the game of mind versus body, my body won out and left my mind no choice but to simply sit and rest for the next 10 days. 

This story may sound familiar to you. So nany of us have it in our nature to get our work done and not let others down, and we feel guilty for cancelling a meeting or missing an event, holding in us the expectation that we can be everything to everyone and do all the things. But that’s just not possible. We’re human, and we actually have breaking points. The one reliable answer is to force ourselves to rest, giving our bodies a break. This is such a fundamental need that it is one of the first mandates of the Torah.

This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the very first portion of the Torah. We begin again with our familiar story and move quickly from the days of creation through the narrative of Adam and Eve in the beautiful Garden of Eden to the first time someone challenged God. From there we have the story of Cain and Abel and the first explosive sibling rivalry. At the end we jump forward rather suddenly in time to the line of Noah.  

At the end of the creation story is the creation of Shabbat. Chapter 2, verse 3 of Genesis reads, “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done.” This commandment imposes a pattern of work and rest on the entirety of creation. However, before humans were created, there was no need for an earthly Shabbat. Animals rest when their bodies mandate it and wake when nature says it’s time. Human beings, however, have the ability to control our time, to schedule ourselves to death. It was humans who needed the mandated rest, and we could not have thrived without this commandment. 

I’ll be honest – as a leader in the community, I don’t often model the best self care. Yes, I take time to work out and connect with the earth on a walk each day, but I’m notoriously bad at taking the time to really rest when my body tells me it needs it. The creation of Shabbat in our Torah portion this week reminds us all that even God needed to rest, and now more than ever we need that time to refresh, renew, and reset.

I’m Listening – Parshat Ha’azinu 5781

Last year for Purim, the Foundation School (our synagogue preschool) teachers got together to discuss what theme we would use to tell the Purim story this year. What came up over and over again was the idea of how we listen to one another. King Achashverosh has the opportunity to listen to Vashti when she shares her wishes, but he doesn’t open his ears. Later, the king listens to Haman when he shouldn’t have, another poor choice. Finally he makes a better choice listening to Esther, as she tries to save the Jewish people. In the telling of the story, we use catch phrases the kids can shout out when they hear a character’s name. It’s not just booing for Haman, it’s also cheering or describing the others. When we asked our students to share a phrase for King Achashverosh’s name, they suggested “I’m listening.” 

How often do you say the words “I’m listening” to someone else? And how often do you actually listen and hear exactly what that person is trying to convey? Now more than ever, we’re relying on what we hear from others. We don’t currently have the benefit of live gestures or physical contact to convey what we mean.

This week we read Parshat Ha’azinu, the penultimate parshah in the Torah, and one which reminds us of the importance of actually listening to one another. This portion includes Moshe’s final poem to the Israelites; in it, he reminds the people of God’s grace, compassion, and loving leadership, while at the same time criticizing the Israelites for their lack of faith and understanding. In this poem we read: 

Remember the days of old

Consider the years of ages past

Ask your father, he will inform you

Your elders, they will tell you.

As Moshe is nearing his final farewell to the people, he implores them to ask their elders to clarify laws and to share their stories. The text begins with the words “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!” As the Israelite nation is moving into their own land, out of the adolescence of wandering in the desert, Moses pleads that God should listen to him, that the people should listen to him, and that ears and hearts be opened to really hearing one another. 

In essence, as his final wish, Moses simply wants to be listened to. Isn’t that what we’re all seeking? We all want the reassurance of knowing our voices are being heard. May the gift of listening – both giving and receiving – be something we take with us into the new year.

The Power We Give – Rosh Hashanah 5781

This is the recorded sermon I gave for Rosh Hashanah (first day) services at Congregation Neveh Shalom, with the text included below.

It begins, I suppose, with a person called – well, I don’t like saying the name if I can help it. No one does. People are still scared. See, there was this wizard who went bad. As bad as you could go. Worse. Worse than worse.

If you can name where that quote came from, 10 points to your house.

Yes, it’s from Harry Potter. I had actually never read the Harry Potter series until this past year, when Shiri became enthralled to the point of obsession. She never read them either of course, she had just heard about the stories from her friends with older siblings. I figured she’d want to read it at some point (perhaps judging by the fact that her go-to dress-up outfit is always Hermionie Granger) and that I should read it first so we could discuss it and I could know where all the scary parts were. So off I went on the Hogwarts Express, so to speak. 

If you’ve read the books or seen the movies, you know that the character who draws you in, the one that keeps you turning the pages and excited for the next chapter isn’t the title character. It’s someone who most of the other characters don’t even want to acknowledge by name. The character who holds the most attention and seemingly the most power is called Lord Voldemort. If you’re not familiar with the plot, Voldemort is the supervillain of the story, and so terrified is the wizarding community that they don’t call him by name, but instead refer to him as “You-Know-Who” or “He who shall not be named.” The fear, the danger, the violence mostly centers around the one character everyone is afraid to talk about.

It’s the sort of superstition we see all over the place, not just in fanciful fiction. It might be as innocent as not wanting to say something for fear of jinxing it. We’ll be discussing home repairs, and Duncan will say something like, “At least our old refrigerator hasn’t died yet.” That’s when I shoot him the death stare and quietly mouth obscenities at him that you don’t often hear from rabbis. Of course those words don’t actually affect the operation of our appliances, but why take any chances, right?

This “let’s not talk about it” fear can also take much more sinister forms. We don’t want to admit there are problems of racism, gender bias, patriarchy, anti-Semitism in the basic systems that govern and guide our lives. But what happens is that by refusing to name it, own it, and then deal with it as it happens, we let it reach a boiling point, and it causes much greater damage. 

I feel at this point I should acknowledge, as you may have heard from various sources, Harry Potter’s author J.K. Rowling has been outspoken and somewhat controversial about her viewpoints on current issues. While I don’t agree with many of the stances she’s taken, I think we can still say she was successful in providing us with this metaphor about what can happen when our problems and fears go undiscussed.

However, she’s not the first storyteller to use this device. Our very own core narrative shares the story of Amalek. The Amalekites, as told in the Torah, were a nomadic group living in the Sinai desert and the part of the Negev that was south of Judah. We know very little about them outside of what is specifically mentioned in the Torah, but we do know that the Amalekites staged a sneak attack on the weak and defenseless lagging at the rear of the migrating Israelites. It was an attack that showed Amalek to be uncommonly ruthless, and by today’s standards would certainly be considered a war criminal. 

When we read about Amalek in chapter 25 of Deuteronomy, we encounter the following: 

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

“Blot out the memory.” “Do not forget.” Is it me, or is that confusing? It seems contradictory. How do we simultaneously remember Amalek while blocking out his name? It seems incongruous that we’d be able to do both. It’s not like Judaism doesn’t give double directives. We have plenty of those in the Torah, the one that comes to mind first, “shamor v’zachor.” This phrase from “Lecha Dodi” comes from both iterations of the 10 Commandments. In Exodus, we are to zachor Shabbat, remember the Sabbath, and in Deuteronomy, we are to shamor Shabbat, guard the Sabbath. Though the two versions aren’t identical, we can do both of these things. We can actively guard or keep, and we can remember. But with Amalek, the ideas of blotting out and remembering – they seem to be in direct violation of each other. Why would the Torah encourage us to remember and forget?

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it should, but it’s not from the Torah. We’re given a similar instruction on Purim, when we’re commanded to read the Megillah and say the name Haman, while also drowning out the name. So perhaps this tradition of Purim can help shed some light on how we can both remember and blot out.

At Purim we’re taught to blur the lines between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai. And this isn’t just about getting drunk, it’s about telling a more complete story, one with representations of both good and bad. We don’t want to focus solely on the evil, and yet to revel in the victory without being able to reflect on the lesson learned would be a disservice to future generations.

This blurring of the lines and of the names also forces us to really examine who is to blame. For example, we don’t generally throw King Achashverosh into either the hero or villain column, but by allowing Haman to craft his extermination plan, is he not also guilty through his silence? To stand by is the opposite of to speak up, and no matter how advanced and connected our world becomes, we never seem to learn that lesson.

Haman, Amalek, Voldemort – we give them power when we only follow one part of the instruction. When we blot them out and then subsequently forget them, or when we remember them but don’t do anything about it. How many times have you heard you have to learn from your past so you don’t make the same mistakes in the future? We say the name, and we drown it out. We call out injustice, and we shout it down.

Tragically, we’ve become too good at just the “drowning it out” part without the “calling it by name” part. As we were thrown into the insanity of COVID-19, it revealed not only how broken our healthcare system is, but made abundantly clear cracks in our education system, our expectations of family work/life balance, our housing markets, and access to food. 

Then on top of racial and economic disparities made worse by the pandemic, George Floyd was murdered. While it was on one hand the latest evidence of unchecked police brutality, it also became the boiling point for the issue of systemic racism. 

I’d like to hope that maybe we’ve finally reached the point where we’re not leaving off half of the equation. Maybe we’re starting to do more than just remember, we’re starting to blot out. Maybe we’re not just shouting “boo,” we’re actually learning from the past.

Let’s be clear, though. Merely saying the name of the problem doesn’t make it go away. As in the case of Lord Voldemort, having Harry say his name wasn’t enough. It was only when Harry Potter was brave and bold enough to continue to say the name without fear that he was able to finally get enough buy in from the whole wizarding world to actually stand up and do something.

Social media has allowed us to become a passively reactionary society. What I mean is we rush to react and label people and actions we don’t agree with. But without any real change or even discussion behind it, engaging in this kind of virtue signaling doesn’t count as “saying the name of the issue.” These things don’t help anyone, they only drive bigger wedges between us.

I’m not suggesting we stop calling out injustice. I’m suggesting we call out these issues, these fears, these hypocrisies by name, and then back up those words with real data and real actions. It’s helpful to remember that not every issue affects me individually, but that doesn’t give me license to ignore it. We simply cannot pretend that problems don’t exist because we don’t say their names. That just allows the issue – and the fear of the issue – to grow. My Harry Potter quote at the start was from one of the early chapters of the first book. By the end of the first book, Harry learns a valuable lesson. Professor Dumbledore tells him, “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

This year, in 5781, we must continue to name the problems. We must relentlessly call them what they are. Don’t give them more power through silence. Voice with voice, hand in hand, we will work to achieve greater justice. Blot out AND do not forget.

Wind, Air, Breath

Each year as we approach the High Holy Day season, I am drawn to a particular theme. This year, as the holidays come right after the birthday season in our home (two in August, two in September), the idea of the “birthday of the world” is especially resonant with me. As we’ve had all four human birthdays in our house, we’ve celebrated with cake and candles, but this was the first year we couldn’t blow out candles.

We’re all hyper aware of how COVID-19 spreads, and we’ve been avoiding expelling air and fluid particles around others for the last six months. We wear masks to keep our breath from hurting others and theirs from hurting us. We learned this lesson early on, but it didn’t stop there. In Portland and in other cities, it wasn’t just COVID-19 that took our breath away, so to speak. Protestors everywhere have faced tear gas as a way of silencing rallying cries. try and silence protestors. 

Yet still, we continued on. At home we hunkered down and embraced the quiet neighborhood streets. With all the family time on our hands, after just a little practice we soon had a new bicycle rider among us and an expert balance biker. We embraced the outdoors for parade parties to celebrate friends and go on hikes. We loved playing on our sprinkler pad out front and having socially distant and safe outdoor playdates with friends. 

Despite the crazy of COVID-19, despite the social unrest over racial injustice, we were able to provide relief and some normalcy for our kids. Our big kid even went to day camp this summer, and was able to wear her mask and stay safe the whole time. 

We were hopeful when school started for both kids that in-person connection would soon follow. Our first grader started online and looked forward to outdoor, physically distant chances to see her friends outside of school hours. Our preschooler started in-person preschool in the amazing program he’s been part of since he was 1. It wasn’t the exact same routine, but it was a routine nonetheless. Our kids were happier, and things were more manageable. 

And then . . . 

The west coast began to burn. A week ago was the last time my kids stepped outside. A week ago was the last time we could take a deep breath. Why?

Because ten days ago a windstorm made wildfires exponentially worse, and they got scarily close.

Eight days ago we learned that fires were even in the Portland metro area southeast of us.

Eight days ago our preschool closed because the air quality was so bad even the inside wasn’t safe.

Seven days ago we listened as our kids asked us to close all the blinds because looking outside was “too scary” because the smoke made the sun spooky and the sky dark.

Seven days ago my daughter had her birthday, and instead of a birthday car parade, I stood outside with three layered masks and an iPad so she could connect with the friends who dared to drive by. 

As my dear friend lamented, “They took away outside!” Yes, now the smoke, fires, and hazardous air quality has even taken away outside. 

Ruach Elohim. When we read about creation in the Torah, we read about the spirit, the wind of God. This wind seems to be the opposite. This wind has taken away our air. This wind has actually condensed our usable space to four walls. We can’t take a deep breath. We can’t actually breathe. 

And we’re the fortunate ones. We were far enough from the fires themselves to be out of danger and not have to evacuate. We’ve got a house that has fairy decent seals. We’ve got community. We’ve got income that supports us. Yet our kids, like so many in our area, have had almost every outlet, every sense of normalcy, taken away from them with the latest devastating layer on 5780/2020 . 

The reason I’m writing this is because I’ve heard from numerous people saying they can’t imagine what life is like right now. I’ll tell you – it’s not fun. Our kids are already screened out because of school, and they’ve had their fill of yoga, art, games, and pillow forts. 

I’m writing this because perspective is everything. In Portland, we’ve been living with awful, off-the-charts hazardous air quality for a week. In other parts of the world, this happens almost year long. We need to change this.

I’m writing for our dog, Stanley, the ten-year-old “puppy” who can’t breathe when we go outside, but who still needs to go outside. 

I write because I needed to decide this week if it was better to wear a KN95 mask plus another double-layer mask inside for a funeral and risk COVID-19 exposure or be outside in the same situation and risk the over 500 AQI reading. 

I write because I can see what’s coming, and the mental health of adults and children needs to be a top priority for this country right now.

I write because I officiated a wedding for a beautiful couple twelve days ago, and it was windy but beautiful, and overnight those winds took the beauty and replaced it with danger. 

I write because we must listen to each other, and use our voices as the ruach, as the spirit that whispers elements of change to one another. The wind, the Spirit of God, is now the voice that tells us climate change is real, mental health must become a priority, and our world will cease to exist if we don’t take this seriously.

I write because, simply, we need to be aware of what’s happening in our world, and we need to tell each other’s stories. 

The word “shanah” in Hebrew happens to share a root with the words for “year,” “change,” and “learning.” May this be the year when we learn about how we can work together, support one another, and make change for a better tomorrow.