Social Justice Rabbi at Glide

At The Kitchen, we work to bridge the gap between the world as it is and the world as we believe it ought to be. 

Over the years, that commitment has taken many shapes and forms, though one of our primary outlets is our active and committed Justice League (may it continue!).

Today, we're thrilled to announce a new initiative that will serve as a bridge between The Kitchen and the pre-eminent religious institution working for social justice in San Francisco, Glide Memorial Church.

Effective July 1, Michael Lezak, a Kitchenite and Rabbi Kushner’s husband, will join the staff of Glide as a Rabbi in the Center for Social Justice, where he will work within Glide to further their efforts towards justice and connect the San Francisco Jewish community to Glide’s social justice work. 

As part of his new role, Rabbi Lezak will spend a portion of his time working with The Kitchen and engaging other Jewish community partners to find collaborative ways to improve our community, our city, and ourselves. This is an unprecedented and completely unique model for multi-faith engagement in justice and service; we are most proud to be a part of it. 

We’d love to have your involvement. Please join The Kitchen Justice League’s Facebook page and stay tuned for more to come after July 1.

As part of this transition, the Kushner-Lezak clan will also be relocating from Marin to San Francisco later this year, which will give Kitchenites yet another home to visit on shabbat. Anyone who wants to walk over after services for some cookies is already invited. 

We couldn’t be more excited for Michael, for Noa, for Glide, for the Tenderloin, for San Francisco, for the Jewish community and for The Kitchen. 

Prophecy 2.0

Parashat Terumah / March 3rd, 2017 / Rabbi Noa Kushner

1. Prophecy 1.0

The Prophets of old were big personalities.
You can picture their names on a marquis: JEREMIAH. ISAIAH.
They had big, bold messages.
R. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that it wasn’t what the prophets heard
It was what they saw
They saw with eyes of God
Channeled the vision of God to other people
They pointed out the places of muddled injustice
Offered profound messages of equality and fought against hypocrisy.

But if we’re looking at a model for getting something done
There are limits to that purity and ALL CAPS approach.

Right? First off, in case you are considering the prophetic life,
It is not an easy life.
No one wants to be your friend.
Maybe you even have a friend who is prophetic.
You don’t always take their calls…
You have come to realize it is best to hang out in small doses.

Remember — prophets were famous for being alone
There was no league of prophets, no club for prophets, no union of prophets.

I think we could say about our moment in history,
And possibly the problem with us here at The Kitchen,
(And it is probably my fault)
Is that we lean old school prophetic.

Don’t get me wrong.
There is a time and place for full on prophecy
Not to mention the prophets have this purity of thought and commitment
That is thrilling and affecting and afflicting in the best ways.

But if we all consider ourselves prophets,
Or, more accurately, if we all even just speak to one another as if we were prophets,
If we all scream our truths at each other,

That does not build a society, that does not build a community
It just further entrenches us in our respective camps.

So, it is clear. Either we need to mix put prophetic in tension with something else
Power, politics, community
Or / And, maybe we need a new kind of prophecy.

2.

Women don’t get equal time in Torah.
Mary Daly was famous for having said that if you took all the patriarchy out of Torah you would have a nice pamphlet.
That is why it is so critical for us to write in all the places where women are not represented, and to embellish all the places where we are.

This is my way of saying that according to the Talmud there are seven prophetesses in Tanakh / in Bible.
Now seven is not a great ratio to however many dozens of men prophets there are but it’s a start. It’s something. I’ll take it.

And here’s the thing:
Esther, Esther of the Book of Esther, of Purim is called a prophetess by the rabbis of the Talmud.

Remember Esther? She essentially joins a herem at her uncle’s request, lives in the palace until she essentially forgets who she is,
and then, when an evil decree comes via you-know-who
(no, I am not going to say that name, you have to come Purim to hear us say it)
When the evil decree comes saying all the Jews will be killed, obliterated, destroyed,
she is so blissed out on royalty and luxury her first reaction to the terrible message is to cover it up and save herself.

Her uncle Mordechai has to shake her via message to tell her to wake up, to tell her
“Darling, if we go, you go too. Don’t you understand?”

Only then does she snap out of it and go to the King.
And all this is a terrific mix of the flawed and the laudible

But it creates a question, a great question that my teacher Avivah Zornberg asks:
How is Esther a prophet?

Because you’ll remember, that one of the distinguishing features of the book of Esther is that there is a very prominent character in Tanakh that not only doesn’t have a part, this character doesn’t even have a line, not a mention — 
Who is it? God.

So if there is no God, and prophets connect God to the people, how can Esther possibly be a prophet?

3.

Perhaps it is as R. Yitz Greenberg teaches:
If you want your God supernatural, full of pyrotechnics, a razzle dazzle God,
If you want that, you will be surely disappointed because there is none of THAT Vegas God in book of Esther.
(He doesn’t say it in precisely those words, I am paraphrasing).

Regardless, Greenberg says Esther is the book that teaches us
that divinity is not consolidated in a few special people
or in a full blown miracles but rather
Divinity happens in fits and starts, all over
and the hand of God can be only be summoned, expressed by the acts of flawed humans

So maybe Esther is a prophet simply by virtue of the fact that she does a brave thing, she alerts the king of the plot against the Jews, and in doing so brings God into the world. Maybe the rabbis just get flexible with the designation, “prophet,”

Like Prince, alav ha shalom, forgive me, was not technically a prince…
You get my point.

But maybe there is more.
Avivah Zornberg suggests that what Esther has to do is not just channel a new kind of invisible God, she must do nothing less than re-invent prophecy for a new era.

She needs to reinvent how to get a new kind of prophetic message across.

After all, if Esther just started giving a big prophetic speech, prophet 1.0 style, even if she was channeling God
hers would be a very different story.
She might not have been successful.
We might not be here.

Because the world where Esther becomes a new prophet is a world where everything seems flipped on its head, and an old school prophet would be laughed out of the palace, or more likely, killed.

4.

Let’s review:
There’s a king that boasts all the time
All he wants to do is to be acknowledged for throwing the best parties
For being in control over all the land
He makes these ridiculous pronouncements against women, all women
And when his wicked advisor (not saying the name) wants to goad him into killing an entire people
That advisor only has to say, “They are not like us” And the king is all in.

If you have having déjà vous I apologize
I am sorry to conjure up the disorientation and spiritual destabilization of living in such a world.

It would be like living in a world where the most sacred thing you could imagine
The gravestone of someone who had died and could not defend himself
The symbol of love and a life lived
It would be as if a gravestone were knocked flat down, many gravestones, so the honor of those people were suddenly made flat like dominos
It would be like a world where the sacred becomes susceptible to ridicule
While the ridiculous — crowd sizes and twitter wars — commands our attention and are thus revered

I can barely imagine such a world, let alone bring it up on Shabbat as our reality.

But this is the world where Esther must re-invent how to prophesize for her day and ours
It makes the question more personal and immediate:
What does prophecy look like now?

First, let’s dismiss the obvious:
We can stop pretending like her world, where all the Jews are in danger, or our world, where we are in some danger and Muslims are in danger and where the lives of immigrants are in a total upheaval
We can stop pretending that these upside-down worlds (painful as they are) present a new conundrum

Because if there is any upside to being part of a thousands year old tradition of intermittent moments of glory with mostly persecution
It is that we know this moment is not unique or insurmountable
In fact, prophecy is usually born in times like ours

So we are left with our question of how you reinvent prophecy without God. Is it just being courageous? Channeling the good?
I think there is a little bit more, I have two ideas.

First,
Remember even in the pivotal argument between Mordechai and Esther
When he wants her to break palace law and go to the King to beg for her life and the life of her people,

Even Mordechai, the one who is supposedly psyching her up
Telling her: “This is your moment!”
Telling her: “You must save us all!”

Even Mordechai, in the middle of his speech, stops and says, “Mi Yodea?” / Who knows?
Maybe you have made it to this place for just this time?”
Avivah Zornberg teaches that this “Mi Yodea” is not rhetorical, it is sincere.
Mordechai says, “Who knows?”

As in, “I don’t know and neither do you. No one knows.
But Esther, try anyway.
“Because Esther that is what it means to be connected to this fraught tradition, and this stubborn people.
There are no guarantees but the alternative is to give up.
There are no guarantees but what will the world become if we all wait for guarantees?”

So there is no God for Esther the emerging prophetess but she still internalizes the weight of the obligation to try. “Who knows?” It might be successful.

In the absence of a conversation with God, Esther accepts the edge of possibility as enough
The edge of possibility, spoken out of the mouth of a loved one, is enough
And in hearing this edge of possibility, she sees into the future and becomes a prophet.

Finally,
Hearing is only half the job of the prophet
Esther also has to plant that possibility in the world.

And so, Esther fasts, she clothes herself in royalty and goes in uninvited to the King to challenge the decree.

Only once there she just asks, significantly, all she asks is for the king to sit with her and the wicked advisor for a dinner party.
That is all.
And that is enough.

For at that party she will ask for a second party.
And at the third party, she will tell the truth, just enough truth to put the world back on its axis again.
No fireworks, no miracles, no tirades, no shouting.
It is a new way of being a prophet. Less glory but arguably more effective.
The edge of possibility and the bare minimum of meticulously planned action.

So we learn:
When there seems to be no God, we don’t get silent.
Instead: we accept possibility and the responsibility it entails.
Instead: Like Esther we clothe ourselves in royalty
We take on the divine attributes
And we go into the throne rooms of the palaces, even if we were not summoned
We go in stealthily and thoughtfully, the way Esther did
We ask for justice in the language of parties and favors, actions, invitations, and dinners

And instead of yelling out into the street or on twitter to find those who might somehow hear our message
We consider where our carefully placed words will do the most good
We speak our message not from outside of this world as the old prophets once did
Not from above the world
But from within the world.

And so, I will close with this, I have to
In this week’s Torah (don’t think I forgot), parashat Termuah
Which details the building of the mishkan, the holy place where we meet God
As soon as the description of the ark is given
The very next thing on the list
The thing that helps to make the space a holy one
Is not the menorah nor the violet curtains
It is a table,
The table where the priests would be fed
The table, where, the rabbis teach, God would give us food,
Show us we were blessed
It is the table,
Right next to the ark
The place where, we understand now, all us modern prophets show up for work.

America

America
Lech Lecha 5777 / Post Election Torah November 11, 2016
Rabbi Noa Kushner

1.
We were in Ruben Arquelivich’s unfinished basement. He has a good couch and a giant screen TV. Ruben is the director of Camp Newman and we’ve been friends for many years.

It was Michael, me, our three daughters, and their family. We hung pink streamers in honor of the first woman president and there were cupcakes with sprinkles that said, “vote.” It was not a fancy party but it was festive. The girls were high on sugar and optimism, dancing around as the results came in.

And then, like so many other election parties this week, it took a turn.

We were so sure of the outcome.

I had said to my daughters when I woke them on the morning of election day, “We will have our first woman president tonight.” We were so sure that when the impossible happened, when the world was inverted like some kind of backwards Purim story where Haman wins, when in an instant the whole world changed, we were utterly unprepared.

As I saw the votes accumulate and the reporters furrow their brows,

Searching for words, my mother's bear instincts kicked in. It was a school night after all, and I wanted my daughters to go to bed one more time thinking there was still hope.

I said, “We’re going now.” The sugar had long worn off, their protests were emphatic but losing steam.

The party was over. It was time to go home.

 

2.
I don’t want to give this Torah. I don’t want to have to teach about this week, about the election. When I see the clip of Trump sitting in the White house chair next to President Barack Obama and in front of the bust of Martin Luther King, I literally shake with disbelief and fury.

As Kitchen-ite and my friend Daniel Sokatch of New Israel Fund wrote:

“The world just took a huge step backwards. The United States is one the best ideas the world has ever known; the election of a candidate who trucks in ultra-nationalism, isolationism, racism and misogyny is one of the worst ideas the United States has ever had. This election threatens to upend the very notion of what America means, to ourselves and to the world.”[1]

I don’t want to stand here and teach this, but here we are.

 

3.
And the worst of it is that our problems run far deeper than any one candidate.

The worst of it is that what this election has revealed is that many people in this country have been suffering for decades, there have been many kinds of suffering and we have not paid attention.

There is the suffering of those who are watching their children lose direction without work, become addicted to crystal meth, and end up in prison.

There is the suffering of those who watch their trade become obsolete, their work unnecessary, as if they themselves are unnecessary. The suffering of those who cannot support their families or afford a reasonable place to live.

And there is the suffering of those who have lost their sense of self-respect and dignity because no matter how hard they try, they cannot make a decent life. Not this year, not last year, not for decades.

To give you an idea, listen to this story from George Packer’s The Unwinding:

“John Russo, a former auto worker from Michigan and professor of labor studies, started teaching at Youngstown State University in 1980. When he arrived, he could look down almost every city street into a mill and the fire of a blast furnace. He came just in time to watch the steel industry vanish before his eyes. Russo calculated that during the decade between 1975 and 1985, fifty thousand jobs were lost in the Mahoning Valley alone – an economic catastrophe on an unheard-of scale.

…It was happening in Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Buffalo, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, Chicago, Gary, St. Louis and other cities…’ Russo said. “If a plague had taken away this many people in the Midwest, it would be considered a huge historical event.” But because it was caused by the loss of blue-collar jobs, not a bacterial infection, [the] demise was regarded as almost normal.”[2]

And when, as Packer suggests, we combine that suffering with the dissolution of civic organizations, the unraveling of religious communities, and the reality that family members live further and further apart,

When we add what has become an unprecedented, mutually beneficial relationship between Wall Street and Washington, these two centers of power a little too cozy for anyone’s comfort,

When we add news sources fighting for clicks that have less and less by way of greater journalistic responsibility, websites that create complete alternate universes complete with conspiracy theories, when we add the concept (in the words of George Packer) that “There were no longer any facts that everyone in America could agree on at the start,”[3]

When we throw in a culture addicted to escapism and voyeurism, a culture where freedom does not mean greater responsibility but rather being completely unfettered, not having to sacrifice anything of one’s own, a culture where the greater good can be seem so remote it is only for suckers, a pipedream,

When we consider all this, perhaps we need to register a certain amount of pained gratitude that this election was not another band-aid on the wounds of America, that rather, our problems are now exposed for all, even us, to see.

For there are simply too many people who have brought their radically different narrative forward for us to dismiss all of them and go back to business as usual.

 

4.
In the story of Sodom and Ghemorrah, the city that is destroyed for its cruelty, (and of course the reason has nothing to do in the rabbinic sources with gay life) the rabbis are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that God would destroy any city, so they fill out the picture of what it was that made that place so bad.

And they start with a very simple idea: Namely that Sodom and Ghemorrah was a place where the land was so beautiful, so rich, that everyone had more than they would ever need. (Does this sound familiar?)

Every path was shaded by seven fruit trees, when you pulled up a root gold flakes would fall off, and the rocks were giant sapphires and rubies. In fact, it was so beautiful and so rich that the people got together and said to themselves, “We have so much here. If a traveler decided to come through, they would only take what we have. So let’s not allow any travelers.”[4]

What ends up happening in Sodom and Ghemorrah, is that although it is the richest country in history (I repeat: Does this sound familiar) it becomes a place where everyone has a delusion of scarcity, and so they answer, ultimately, only to themselves. And that delusion grows to the point where the people stop answering their doors, where they steal from any public project or building effort for their personal gain, where the legal system contorts to protect the privileged and powerful, and where those who break the norm to help the weak and powerless are punished and shunned.[5]  

And as we hear these texts written centuries ago, it sounds too much like our own experience for comfort. We realize we also did not question the status quo, we also did not look far enough outside our doors. 

We realize we are guilty of an aveira (sin), we are guilty of the aveira of not knowing, of not knowing that our country was slowly falling apart. We realize that those of us with power, the “haves,” pretended we represented the whole. We realize we assumed that as long as we were safe, things were safe for most everyone. We realize we were blind to the desperation just barely beneath the surface, or in some cases, out in plain sight.

And we can’t afford to make the mistake of pitting victim against victim, cause against cause. While there are always hard choices, the story of Sodom and Ghemorrah teaches we have more than we think, we have more than enough:

We have seven fruit trees over every path, we have gold in the soil, we have more than just about any other country in the history of the world.

So we can no longer afford to pretend we must choose to treat one kind of suffering over another. If we are going to be a part of repairing the social infrastructure of America we cannot help one group but not the others, we cannot attend to the bridges but leave the roads on either side untouched. It is hard but we will have to address the whole of us.

Yes, the decimated working class of America deserves our national attention

And yes, black lives matter

And yes, this country was built on the principle that immigration is a greater good and many peoples can thrive together, this is perhaps our greatest contribution to the world

And yes, women are people and we can do what we want with our whole selves

And yes, sexual harassment and assault are serious crimes, not trivialities

And yes, the LGBTQ movement is one of our most important social victories to date

And yes, no Jew, none of us should have to be afraid, not on twitter, not at work, not on the streets

And yes, our Muslim brothers and sisters must be free to pray, to wear what they choose, to work, to live lives with honor, to contribute to our country as they always have

And yes, those with disabilities are full human beings and are more than their disabilities 

And there are many more groups of people, people whose contributions to who we are as a nation are significant. So many that we begin to realize that there’s no one left who doesn’t fit in at least one of these categories. It has become painfully obvious that there is no “them” anymore. We are “them.”

We are them and they are us – and maybe this very idea is what it means to be an American. The united states of us. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

 

5.
But, let’s be clear, it is not so easy now. The risks are very real. Our President Elect has broken every rule of social obligation, every basic social contract to great effect. He has proven that one way to win is to consider everyone an enemy, to trust no one, to make the very structures of society and political life suspect, untrustworthy, to let fear and power reign.

And this last idea, that we would always be afraid, is the most dangerous, if unoriginal.

In the Pesach story, what is so devastating is that as bad as things get, we Israelites are so afraid for our lives and so used to being slaves that we never react. Pharaoh had taught everyone that there was no use in resistance. So when a taskmaster kills a slave, no one says anything, no one even moves.[6] And when Pharaoh commands all the boy babies to be thrown in the Nile, there is not a single response recorded.[7] Israel is silent, and I think it is the loudest silence in all of Torah. We could not see beyond our own fear and so we let the unspeakable take place.

Many things are precarious in this moment: The way our country is run, the supreme court, the future of journalism, many things hang in the balance, but the question of whether or not fear and self protection will reign is underneath them all.  

ָAnd so we must remember that we cannot afford to let fear reign. For we have learned from our own story in the Torah, and we have learned from our own mistakes, that when we believe in the lies of Pharaoh, then we lose everything.

We know, we have learned: No matter how strong and invincible the Pharaohs of the world seem, they never win. The tools of Pharaoh, fear and oppression, never win.

And not only that, our tradition teaches it is more than possible to build a society on the command v'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha/ to love your neighbor as yourself, it is what we expect of ourselves.[8]

And not only that, it is more than possible to build and be citizens of a country that’s only as strong as its weakest members, it is expected of us to bring this into reality, we expect it of ourselves.

And even though this kind of compassionate society, this kind of moral country takes unprecedented amounts of work and sacrifice, more than we can even imagine from our current sheltered life experiences, the opportunity to help build it is there, it is here, the reward is great. It is nothing less than the reward of being a citizen in a country that is decent, of fulfilling the promise of a great land, of continuing the work of our families in the America of opportunity and hope they worked so hard to build.

 

6.
Last, in moments like these, I think of my friends in Israel who have had their share of political heartbreak.

My dear friend Daveed Ehrlich owns a literary café in Jerusalem, לשוםש תמול. He writes that in 1996, the great writer and poet Yehuda Amichai (z”l) came into the café and sat in a chair, a chair that to this day the café calls “עמיכי כסא / The Chair of Amichai.” Amichai came in and sat down the morning after the election in 1996, right after the assassination of Rabin, a man who was killed for trying to make peace. On that morning, instead of Peres winning, a man who would have likely continued the work of Rabin, Netanyahu became the prime minister for the first time. Amichai ordered a coffee.

Gili, who was a waitress then remembers, “I said to him that if Daveed the owner was here, he would be handing out free whiskey.” But Amichai replied, “Already we have had many mornings when we thought it was the end of the world, and just as it wasn’t so then, so it isn’t today.”[9]

 


 

[1] New Israel Fund letter, 11.9.16.

[2] George Packer, The Unwinding, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 52. Many ofthe ideas I string together in this section were heavily influenced by this book.

[3] Ibid., p. 314.

[4] Paraphrased from Sefer Ha-Aggadah, p. 36-37: 30. See also: Numbers Rabba 9:24, Leviticus Rabba 5:2.

[5] Ibid. p. 36.

[6] See Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Jerusalem: Eliner Library, 1993, chapter 4, “Moses seeks his brethren.”

[7] Exodus 2:22. Of course the midwives secretly resist and Pharaoh’s daughter also saves a baby (Moses) but there is no response in the public sphere. See Also Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s teaching on the silences that precede the Exodus in her book, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, New York: Double Day, 2001, esp. chapter 2, “Vaera: The Exile of the Word.”

[8] Leviticus 19:18

[9] “Story for the Morning After,” T'mol Shilshom.

 

I Wish It Were Tisha B'Av

I wish it were Tisha B’Av*, so we could sit on the floor in the dark, with just a few candles and mumble prayers and grieve. We could read Eicha / Lamentations, the book of Torah that begins, “How?” and know that there is sometimes no satisfying answer.
 
I wish it were Tisha B’Av because that day feels like a communal shiva, a house of mourning for all. It feels we are in shiva together now, shocked to find we are grieving a direction for America that has abruptly reversed course. We are out of breath. Everything is slower. No one tries to be clever, we just shake our heads and ask, “How?”
 
On Tisha B’Av there is certain, precise kind of grief because we remember that we were not innocent victims, rather, we had something to do with the destruction of the Temple. We all own a piece of it. The rabbis have suggestion after suggestion about what really caused it to fall. Were we too cruel to each other? Too insular? Too interested in our own laws and protocol at the expense of justice? We are implicated, then and now, for those same forces. But the rabbis use that destruction, and our implication in it, not as the end but as the beginning. They try to understand from that dark place what a society must be. They know that even if the Temple was destroyed the lessons we learned there must live on, our way of being holy and just and generative in the world depends on those lessons.
 
So for we Jews + we who do Jewish, it is a dark day, but we have been here before. We know what it is like to lose most everything. We know from Talmud that we cannot stay hidden in the ruins of what was, what we wanted life to be, what we wished it were. Rather we must take our prayers, even if they are shorter, even if they are rushed, back to the messy streets where they can do some good and be added to many other prayers.
 
This destruction must become our starting point. We will first take our time to mourn and see all that fell, to console one another. And then, even in our disappointment, we will stand up from the darkness and we will carry that question “How?” into the light.
 
We have been here before. Once we allow ourselves to absorb the weight of what has happened in our time, on our watch, we will return to the streets and begin again.

Rabbi Noa Kushner, November 9, 2016

________________

* Day we mourn the destruction, thousands of years ago, of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Broken

Rabbi Noa Kushner
Yom Kippur Morning 5777
“Broken“

 

1. Graves

It is the day of Yom Kippur, a long day. We’re starting to be a little revealed, a little broken down. We’re starting to consider that we’re not so perfect, that we won’t live forever.

This has been going on a long time.

Maybe you knew and maybe you didn’t -- for all the years that Israel was wandering in the wilderness, every year a few days before Yom Kippur, a herald would go out into the camp and shout: “Go out and dig graves! Go out and dig graves!”

And the people would go out and dig their own graves and spend the night in them. (And you guys get antsy when we tell you to get all the way on the floor for the High Holiday Aleinu!)

Anyway, in the morning, the people would come out and see who was still among the living. Every year, a few people wouldn’t have made it out of their graves, they would be dead. To me this similar to what we do when we look around the room on high holidays and realize who is no longer here.

On year, after they had spent forty years in the wilderness, one year, no one died. The people immediately thought they had the calendar wrong and slept in the their graves an extra night, another, and another. When, after several nights, they realized everyone was still alive, they declared it a festival. That is why Yom Kippur begins with severity and gravity but ends in joy – we are still alive.[1]

Strange as it sounds you could say that this is the ritual that we still follow in some way. As in, this is what the not eating is about, the wearing of the white, the death shrouds: We’re getting inside our graves.

Why? So that we might realize we won’t live forever, and so we might make our necessary t’shuvah, so that we might turn, change.

2. We hide and come out 

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Even eats the fruit from the tree of life, the fruit they were told not to eat. Their eyes newly opened, ashamed at what they have done, they go and hide behind a tree.

God calls out to Adam, “Ayeka?” / “Where are you?”  

The rabbis notice this is a strange moment. They ask, “Surely God knows where Adam is. How could God not see Adam and Eve hiding behind a tree?”

But Rabbi Shneur Zalman teaches that, of course, God is not asking because God does not know, God is asking so that Adam will say to himself, “Hineni” / “I am hiding.”[2]

You see, God wants Adam to realize: “I am hiding but I don’t have to say here.” And although “Ayeka” is a hard question to hear, it is a healing question. Because as soon as we are able to say “Hineni” / “I am here,” a door opens.

Funny how in the story about us getting in the graves – the learning is not in getting in the grave but in the realization that we are still alive and can get out.

Martin Buber teaches, however, that there is another possible question, a fake question. It disguises itself like “Ayekah” / “Where are you?” And it even begins exactly the same: “Where are you?” but then it continues, “Because from where you are, there is no way out.”[3]

You see, when we hear “Ayeka,” / “Where are you?” although we might shudder, we also sense an opening, possibility for growth, and while we may be afraid to leave our hideouts, we see that we can, we have the capacity to grow.

But on the other hand, when we hear, “Where are you? because from where you are there’s no way out,” it is as if that same door slams shut. And Buber teaches, when we feel that door slam, by virtue of our feeling shut in, then we know it must be the wrong question, it must come from the yetzer.

You see, along with the voice of God, we have in our tradition the voice of the yetzer, or the yetzer ha-rah, the “evil inclination.”

The voice of the yetzer sounds something like this: “You’ve always failed and things will not really ever change so why bother telling her? It will just look worse than is already does. It will just rock the boat, make things uncomfortable, and you know this cannot be solved, so better to keep this a secret, better actually to be even a little ashamed that you even want this relationship, this idea, this thing to change.” The yetzer wants us to stay hiding, not to try. Despondency is the yetzer’s best friend. The yetzer loves it when we keep our dreams and sadness to ourselves, when we don’t tell dare tell anyone else the truth.

This time of year we may realize that the yetzer has gotten a lot of air time in our brains, more than his share, more than she’s earned. We realize how appeasing the yetzer, and “keeping appearances” dominates so many of the decisions we make or avoid.

Ayeka” / “Where are you?” God is calling. We look around and realize we are still hiding. We can continue to listen to the yetzer or we can accept this real question as a divine invitation to grow and to keep growing.

I don’t know how long Adam and Eve hid behind the tree. Doesn’t say. Could have been years. But eventually I imagine Adam thinks, “This tree where we’re hiding, I’m cramped. It’s uncomfortable back here, I can’t move. We can’t undo what we did but maybe it doesn’t have to be the end of the story.”

And so Adam comes out of the first closet ever and the Torah begins.

3. Breakout

Noach, a few chapters later, is another one who hides.

You remember Noach’s story: God makes the world but people are so awful to each other that God tells Noach to build an ark, an elaborate process takes years and years, (one source says he even has to grow the trees that will make up the wood for the ark, I even imagine that the wood that makes up the ark came from that same tree Adam and Even hid behind but I digress), it takes decades, he has to collect all the animals inside and God brings a giant flood that destroys everything. Inside, Noach and his family are safe, he tends to the needs of the animals while he waits for the world to start over.

There’s a midrash by R. Yehudah ben Eli that after the flood, after the world has been destroyed and it is time to rebuild again, after the waters have receded, after Noach has sent out the raven and waited, after he has sent out the dove, and after the dove comes back with the olive branch and it is clear they are safe to come out and they have certainly been in that ark a very long time, Noach is still staying in the ark. My colleague and friend Rabbi David Ingber asks, “What are you waiting for Noach?” “What’s taking so long, Noach?”

Now Noach has a good cover story for why he waits. He says, “God told me to go in, shouldn’t I wait for God to tell me to come out?”[4] But it doesn’t seem right. Doesn’t he want to jump out of the ark at the first opportunity? (I can’t even wait until they turn off the seat belt sign when my flight is over.)

I wonder if Noach, in the ark, started having doubts. Maybe his yetzer got to him: “Who do you think you are to start the new world? You couldn’t even get one person to be righteous in your whole generation. Better stay in the ark.”

Maybe this is why R. Yehuda ben Eli taught: If I had been there, I would have broken down the ark and taken myself out.”

Because sometimes in getting out of hiding – we are fighting for our lives. We have to wrestle that voice of the yetzer to the ground, we have to break down the ark. We have to break apart the hideouts we have built for ourselves, even the ones we painstakingly assembled bit by bit, year by year. If we want to live, we even have to break down the very places that kept us safe in difficult times. And we have to do this again and again and again.  

4. Broken

There’s a teaching that says that when God made the world, it was all chaos and God wanted to bring light. So God made these vessels for the light, but the abundance of light was too much for the vessels and they cracked.

And Rabbi Pinchas taught that we are these vessels, and our job is to try and hold onto some kind of divine light. But invariably, when we do, we crack open, we are changed in the process.[5] The vessel we started with, our impressions and perspectives, our narratives, that vessel will be necessarily transformed as we grow. Maybe if we know that is supposed to happen, that brokenness is a part of growth, that we are destined to crack open every time we hold more light, it will give us koach (strength) to show each other when we are breaking.

5. We want to show who we are to each other, mistakes and all.

We imagine (or maybe the yetzer tells us) that the less of our real selves we show to others, the less we need others, the more security we will have, the more secure we will feel. But it is the opposite. We want to be found out, we are dying to reveal who we truly are, even when we’re in pain, and when we can’t or don’t, the disconnect is unbearable.

There’s a story from Rabbi Hayyim about a highly decorated general.

Now it is customary for guards to give greater honor to a general.

And it once happened that this general was court-martialed because of some wrong he had done. As a result, he was demoted, stripped of his medal in the courthouse.

But when he left the military court and went outside, as he passed the guards, they did not notice that he no longer wore the general’s insignia and saluted him just as always. Only then was he pierced to the heart.[6] 

As ashamed as he was of what had happened, he wanted them to know. More than anything he wanted them to know.

6. Break down the walls: We can show what’s wrong

Our tradition has ways of encouraging us to reveal ourselves not only to God but to each other. Think about how we respond to death. There is not only funeral but shiva, tons of people coming in our house every day for a week, right when maybe we are at our most vulnerable, maybe in our lowest place, right when many of us would choose to be alone. Or think about today, when we confess our darkest moments  -- many of us might lean towards solitude. But the tradition says if we’re going there, we’re not going there alone. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls Yom Kippur, “liberation from the crushing guilt and isolation.”[7]

Because we don’t have to hide, we have another option. We can show one another what’s wrong.

One of the most powerful stories I heard at a shabbos table in Jerusalem was of a young man who was raised as an ultra orthodox hasid. And now that he was on his own he had decided to pray in a more progressive community. With trepidation, he told his father. His father asked him, is there a mechitza? (Is there a separation during prayer between men and women?) “No,” said the young man. “Well,” asked his father, “In this place, can you cry?” See, here is our real litmus test: Is your place of prayer a place where you can show God and one another what’s wrong?

One of my earliest memories of The Kitchen was at our first yizkor, memorial service on Yom Kippur. We were only a few weeks old, no one knew anyone and we had like 60 people if that. And I went around the room to collect the names of those who died as we do to remember them. And I asked for people to say their relationship to those who had died along with the name and a young woman in her twenties said a name and then she said, “my brother” as she started to weep openly. I was taken aback, I knew that if I stopped to really comfort her, the other mourners would not get a chance to say their names. But before I could do anything, the woman next to her -- they had not come together -- they did not know each other, she put her arm around her and held her tight. I knew then we would make it as a kehilla / community. Because someone could show her pain and someone else would step in to tend to it.

But I worry about those of us here who are still crying but behind closed doors where no one can see. I worry about those of us keeping up our medals of all stripes even though we struggle with feeling worthless. I worry about those of us hiding like Adam or Noach, certain we have destroyed everything. This Yom Kippur, I want to give us all the koach to do what it takes to break down those walls.

Because in these moments we have to remember that while the yetzer is powerful and clever and has many disguises, no matter where we are, no matter what is causing us pain, there is always a way out, there is always an open door. The minute we recognize the yetzer for what it is, once it is unmasked, it loses much of its power. And when we reveal whatever secret shame or fear we are carrying to each other, the yetzer all but loses its claim on us. We call this revealing to ourselves, to each other, to God -- t’shuvah / turning. With it, we not only have a chance to save ourselves, we can save our relationships.

7. Say it

My teacher R. Ed Feinstein taught me about the most heartbreaking  thing he ever read. It was the transcripts of the phone calls to the people on 9/11 who knew that the towers had been hit and they were going to die. As we might imagine, they didn’t waste time. There was no pretense and a level of genuineness, purity. “I love you,” they said. “I’m sorry if I ever hurt you.” “I forgive you for everything.” “You mean everything to me.”

We don’t have to wait for a life ending tragedy to say what we need to say. In our deepest heart of hearts, we want to reveal ourselves to each other, we are desperate to silence the yetzer and to come out of our hiding places, kicking down the doors. Yom Kippur is our chance.

On this day our ancestors made graves. And I have to imagine that sleeping in one’s own grave, lying in the dark, brought home whatever still needed to be said, whatever brokenness called our attention and I want the same for us.

On this day our ancestors made graves and I have to believe that sleeping in one’s own grave brought home the fact that no matter how long we hide, no matter how elaborate our hiding places, no matter how many reasons the yetzer gives us for why we can never come out, I have to believe that in those graves we learned that nothing the yetzer tells us to do will protect us, and I want the same for us.[8]

It is not too late.

See, on this day, our ancestors slept in their graves. But in the morning, when they were still there, they got up and went out -- back to the risky, heartbreaking world; back to a mess of complicated relationships, back to the work of being a broken vessel of light, back to the business of being alive.

 

[1] Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, eds. The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah, 99:123.

[2] Martin Buber, “Where are You?,” Tales of the Hasidim, Volume 1, p. 268.

[3] Martin Buber, The Way of Man: According to the Teaching of Hasidism, New Jersey, Citidel Press, 1966, p. 14. “There is a demonic question, a spurious question, which apes God’s question, the question of Truth. Its characteristic is that it does not stop at: ‘Where are you?’, but continues: ‘From where you have got to, there is no way out.’ This is the wrong kind of heart-searching, which does not prompt man to turn, and put him on the way, but, by representing turning as hopeless, drives him to a point where it appears to have become entirely impossible and man can go on living only by demonic pride, the pride of perversity.

[4] Bereishit Rabbah 34:4

[5] Martin Buber, “The Breaking of the Vessels” Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schoken Books, 1947, Volume 1, p. 121.

[6] Martin Buber, “The Story of the General” Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schoken Books, 1947, Volume 2, p. 213.

 

[7] Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way, New York, Summit Books, 1988, p. 207.

[8] See Audre Lorde who writes beautifully on this subject in her book, Sister Outsider

When Is Now?

Rabbi Noa Kushner
October 6, 2016 / Kol Nidrei 5777
“When is Now?”

American Judaism is in trouble. I think my wake up call was a few months ago when the AIPAC conference hosted Donald Trump. Don’t worry. This is not an anti-AIPAC drash, there’s good AIPAC people and one organization is not a juicy enough idea for a kol nidrei drash anyway.

See, it was in the days leading up to this conference, my entire social media feed was filled, unsurprisingly, with people who were upset that AIPAC had invited Donald Trump. Some were AIPAC supporters, some not. Some argued since Trump was / is the republican candidate, we have to invite him, some said otherwise. Most of the people, however, were clear that since Trump had been invited, they would be boycotting the talk. At the moment of that speech, they would get up and walk out.

I was certain based on my news sources that this would be a disruptive event of monumental proportions. I sat home glued to my computer screen to see what would happen. Here’s what I learned. AIPAC is a huge deal. There were tens of thousands of people there, many giant screens and it looked to me like the size of a giant sports event or national convention for one of the major political parties. Much, much bigger than the conferences I typically go to.

And then the moment came when it was Trump’s turn came to speak. Now I know from talking to people who were there that many participants who did not support his views stayed in the room out of sheer curiosity.

But when the moment came, it did not look like anyone left. Yes, there were some photos circulated of a few people standing outside (and god bless them) looked like a few dozen, but from watching what was going on inside, it didn’t make a dent. Inside, the people, thousands and thousands of those representing the Jewish community, laughed and applauded as Trump commandeered the stage in the giant dark room.

For me, where we are now as a larger Jewish project crystallized in that moment. There’s lots of energy and anxiety around “survival,” (The security of Israel! The Jewish future!) and less of an understanding about what it is in us that we want to survive.

Because if we were clearer, I have to think that dark room would have been close to empty.

The Innermost Point  
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger, in his old age, spoke once about a congregation that had everything: a leader, and members and a House of Study and all the signs of a strong community. Suddenly Satan came and took out the innermost point, the essence, the direction that was within that community. “But,” the old rabbi taught, “the heartbreak was that everything remained just as it was, the wheel kept on turning as if nothing was missing.” He was speaking quietly to his grandson, but suddenly he cried out: “God help us, we must not let it happen!”[1] 

American Judaism is in trouble. And not because membership is down.

American Judaism is in trouble because it has relied too long on status, pedigrees and the Jewish equivalents of the American flag pin without (in general – there are of course, exceptions) without an equally serious cultivation of that innermost point, the answer to the question, “Why must we survive?” and the ongoing relationships and sacrifices that must accompany it.

Because at the end of the day, the symbols have to continue to stand for something. And it turns out that some of the American Jewish made up customs and symbols -- the locked glass cases with seder plates from the gift shop in the front halls, the black and white photos of past presidents staring off into space, the yartzeit plaques with the little lights that illuminate on the week of the yartzeit – while they worked in their time, and they still work for some of us, they haven’t adequately transmitted the meaning they once signified.

The essence, the innermost point fell away but the wheel kept turning.

You see, it’s not that glass cases with seder plates in them are wrong, it’s just that if the closest we come to leaving the degradation of Egypt and slavery, and understanding what it means to be rescued by God as if flown on angel’s wings, if the closest we come to standing up to Pharaoh, and being terrified and uncertain whether or not to cross the sea –

If the closest we get to the understanding that spiritual and political freedom requires an ongoing struggle, what can often feel like a life and death struggle, if the closest we come to those things is a seder plate locked in a glass case, then the innermost point is far away indeed.

And the stakes are high: If we under react we could lose everything but platitudes, everything but that wheel that keeps on turning.

And if we overreact, (if we say it is all “organized religion”) and throw out our stories and institutions and teachers and holidays and religious provocations along with the locked up seder plates not only do we risk being ungrateful (many of those institutions got us here, after all, many did and do tremendous, worthwhile things), we will also lose a big part of the vocabulary that could help us recover that innermost point, we’ll lose precious comrades, and we’ll lose the existing maps back to where we want to be.  

The Questions
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes that, “Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us [in the world] to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence.

They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization and are to be defended and cherished. But they do not and can not answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in [their] life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”[2]

These questions don’t just apply to us as individuals, they can help us recover this innermost point together: Who are we collectively as a Jewish community? Why are we here? What does that mean for how we should live? 

In other words, what’s it gonna be? What’s this Jewish project going to be under our watch? Why must we survive?

And I think it is entirely possible that what we once thought were just polite lies things we said to make the children feel better, things like: 

God made the world and cares about each of our actions, we each have the power to change the world, and we can only do so if we can work together, it is possible that the old lies are all true.

That we are “children of kings and queens and a kingdom of priests”[3] and not only do each of our lives have inherent worth and meaning, we have been given life in order to bring righteousness -- that potent combination of justice with “transcendent sources and eternal implications.”[4]

So maybe it is not that have to lower our expectations for ourselves,  maybe we don’t need to just accept that religion is on the wane, rather maybe we need to raise those expectations higher, for ourselves, for our communities and for the terms of our survival.

Israeli Judaism is in Trouble  
Before I went to Israel this past summer I was afraid. I was afraid of the violence. I should know better, I am the one who can list all the stats – we’re more likely to be hit by a car here than to be the victim of terror there, etc. But I was afraid. Like most of you, I hear about Israel through the news and because the news doesn’t talk about the school children playing, or the merchant who opened her new café, or the regular signs of every day life, I only saw Israel through the lens of what was happening between Israelis and Palestinians, I only knew about the violence.

But within a day of being there and being around my friends and the whole city of people who were living their lives I forgot to be afraid.

In fact, I was so busy learning torah and having some of the most substantive conversations of my year and trying to make sure we did not get hit by aggressive taxi drivers that I forgot about the matzav (the situation w/the Palestinians) altogether.

Looking back, I think neither of my positions were admirable. In one, I imagined the whole country was a danger zone on the verge of survival. In the other, like many Israelis (understandably, given how long this has gone one, but still), I ignored everything but what I could see in front of me. I made the question of survival primary and once that was settled, I didn’t consider why that survival was essential or at what cost.

Maybe my overemphasis on survival is understandable. R. Ed Feinstein teaches that there were at least two competing early forms of Zionism:

First, there was Theodore Herzl’s vision of a physical place that would be, above all, a protection against anti-semitism, a place that would give us the ability to defend ourselves and claim sovereignty.

Second, there was Ahad Ha’am’s vision that Judaism itself needed saving, that after so many years of living in exile our tradition had become narrow minded and myopic, overly obsessed with ritual and detached from the real world. Ahad Ha’am believed Judaism needed an injection of rich culture, contemporary life, land. These two Zionisms lived in tension with each other as more and more Jews made aliyah to Israel.

However, while we were in the middle of working through these not-quite-aligned ideas, the holocaust happened. In Feinstein’s words: “The Holocaust proved Herzl right. We did need a safe place against the anti Semitism of the world. …Survival became our prime imperative, our only mitzvah. …All else, most especially Ahad Ha’am’s call for a state rooted in Jewish moral aspiration, was set aside.”[5]

I was on the plane to Israel with my family. When we got on, we got copies of the local Israeli paper. Elie Wiesel had just died. And on the front page, there was just a photo of Wiesel and a headline with giant letters, three simple words: “Hu Hayah Sham” / “He was there.”

You see, they don’t have to say his name, because everyone knows one of the most famous survivors of the shoah by his face. And they don’t have to say where he “was,” because everyone knows all to well where he “was.” In many ways, the country was built from the place where he “was.”

If you think we are concerned with Jewish survival here, since what we mean by our “Jewish survival” is kind of hard to pin down and mainly gets discussed in fundraisers and board rooms, by comparison, survival in Israel is immediate, real, a larger than life topic. Everyone has someone in their extended family who was killed serving in this war or on that bus. Everyone. And this fact means that survival can, understandably, loom over everything.

But if the whole country exists primarily for the purpose of survival,

if we do not examine “survival for what?” then Israel will pale in comparison to its own founder’s dreams. If it only exists to exist, it then has no greater responsibility other than survival and its trajectory for greatness is limited. R. David Hartman z”l taught us that the key question is whether Israel is going to be a place that will stand in covenant with the Shoah [holocaust] or with Sinai, living Torah.[6] And I fear that with every new settlement built, that question is answered.

As Peter Beinart wrote, “We know in our bones …that Israel is headed toward moral disaster. We know that a non-democratic Israel is a dead Israel. We know that if Israel makes permanent an occupation that reeks of colonialism and segregation, America …will eventually turn against it. …We know that if Israel continues on its current path, our children will one day live in a world without a Jewish state. We know that our grandparents’ generation of Diaspora Jews will be remembered for having helped birth the first Jewish country in 2,000 years, and that ours will be remembered for having helped destroy it.”[7]

Now
There is line in Exodus when God gives us the Torah: V’atah im shamoa tishmi’u b’koli / ‘Now, if you listen to my voice.’

The rabbis ask, when is ‘Now’?  The answer? Sinai is ongoing; Sinai lives. Whenever we hear the voice, the call, then our ‘Now’ has arrived.”[8]

There comes a moment in every generation where the key problems are placed before us. I believe we have come to that moment. Here in America we have an institutional Jewish structure that struggles with being largely symbolic and too often lacking in its essence. In Israel, we see the understandable fears and trauma of a silent majority directing the country towards survival but at the cost of its moral foundations and its dreams. We don’t get to pick our generation and we don’t get to pick our problems. We just get the opportunity to hear the call or ignore it, to know that this is our ‘Now,’ and to decide to respond.

And if we’re going to respond in a substantial way, if we’re going to articulate a recovery of the innermost point -- who we are and why we’re here -- we will need three things, this new Jewish world will stand on three things (and these are not the usual ones, I am making these up):  

(1) A resounding faith in ourselves,
(2) A new understanding of Jewish community, and
(3) A dedication to righteousness even when the ultimate solutions are no where in sight.

 

(1) A resounding faith in ourselves
I learned a Hasidic teaching from Yakir Englander of Kids 4 Peace. He says that, “We know when God intends to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorra, Abraham struggles with God, and tries to save those people.

He asks God: ‘What if you can find fifty tzadikim in the city?’ And when God agrees, Abraham asks, ‘What if there are forty?’ He bargains with God until he reduces the numbers of righteous people to 10.” (And it turns out there are not even ten so the city is destroyed.)

Yakir continues, “Considering this story, my Hasidic tradition goes further, and remembers the words of Rabbi Levi of Berditchev, who said that had he been present when Abraham bargained with God, he would never have accepted God’s final condemnation of Sodom.

He would bargain with God and reduce the number until there is only one tzadik, and if he can’t find even one tzadik, he himself, will move to live in the city.”[9]

There’s no way we can combat the defensiveness, defeatism and fatigue of our time without learning from this kind of spiritual grandeur and defiant righteousness. Go up against God? Of course. Yes. Do more than Abraham? Without a doubt. Totally necessary.

And pay close attention: this is not a description of us “doing our part,” rather it is each of us paying back dues for the gift of our very lives.

 

(2) A new understanding of Jewish community
For the first few years of The Kitchen I refused to use the phrase “Jewish community” because that phrase has been so overused to mean so little, in so many (but not all) places.

But I realized while Jewish community for Jewish community’s sake is circular, lacking, community for doing the righteous work is giant, and community that manifests our ability to act collectively is not only rare, it is inherently, indisputably necessary.

However, the Jewish community has changed and so we need to speak about ourselves in a new way. I can only speak for us here in San Francisco but in today’s Jewish community, we might not be all ashkenaz, we might not all be Jewish, we might not all be in hetero marriages with 2.2 kids, bla bla bla, and let’s face it, we never were all those things, even if we pretended we were -- so our pedigrees, our ethnicity will, by necessity, now be less important to our collective self definition.

However, we can and will continue to do Jewish together: Shabbat, torah, tzedek, gimmilut chasadim, sukkot, t’fillot, baby namings, all the things we already do, anyone who wants to participate in Jewishexperiences. We can and will continue to ask what’s beyond the surface of our texts and tradition, and all this activity will become the new pedigree, doing these things together will confer the new status of belonging. Whatever righteousness we are able to bring into the world together will be the basis for the new belonging.

 
(3) A dedication to righteousness even when solutions are nowhere in sight.
Last, third, this Jewish revival must have something to say here on the ground. And so I want to return to the greatest Jewish project of our time, Israel / Palestine.

We learn that a man confided in his rabbi that he prayed and prayed and yet saw no difference in his prayer or his life. The rabbi told him, “This is because when you pray, you are like an ox plowing a field.

You yourself cannot see what is changing but over time the field will surely bloom.”[10]

Having tremendous faith in ourselves is not enough. Redefining Jewish community is not enough. If we want to claim that we are here to bring righteousness, we have to have the discipline to play the long game, even when we can’t see anything happening on the ground in front of us.

When I went to Israel, I asked everyone, “What do you wish for?”

Surprisingly, at least to my American mindset, no one offered any comprehensive solutions. Now these are the same people who suffered greatly when Netanyahu won a third term, my friend didn’t get out of bed for three days, these are far from apolitical people. But everyone I spoke with talked about small conversations, breaking down walls between individuals. “We need to teach our children how to talk to one another now so that this does not continue,” my friend said. They spoke in the language of community building, dialogues and youth programs, changing one relationship at a time, of building a new world from the ground up. They hadn’t given up on themselves or on the country they wanted to see.

It was as if they were acting out what Michael Sfard wrote in Ha’aretz, “There are …less visible forces, whose mode of operation is less overt …[and] One of them is actually the idea that all human beings are equal and that all deserve rights because they are human beings. That idea is responsible for the greatest and most important revolutions in history. ...And that idea, together with those who oppose things as they are …will bring about a substantive change in the way Israeli society functions and vest ostensibly small and weak organizations with inexplicable might. And this will bring about the end of the occupation."[11]

Finally, since it is Yom Kippur I want to admit something to you.

There was a demonstration against the occupation when I was in Israel, activists getting to know Palestinians, everyone putting themselves on the line. Yes there were also a lot of foreigners, and maybe I would be seen as yet another preachy American rabbi but I could have met people doing the work, maybe I could have helped. But I didn’t go. It was in the territories and I was afraid. I told myself, “I am a mother.” I told myself that things were not entirely safe, which was true, but let’s face it, when are things 100% safe? I didn’t go to the demonstration but I regret it. Because my life was not given to me just so I could protect myself. Because Israel must be about more than surviving. Because Palestinians are suffering systematically. Because the American Jewish community needs to stand for more than continuity, we need to reclaim why we are here in the first place. Because 50 years of the occupation in our name deserves a significant response from each and every of us, even if we can’t see the end anywhere in sight.

There is another chance. There is a bigger demonstration happening next summer. This time I will be there. I can’t pay your way, I can barely pay mine but I think you should find a way to pay your own way. I’ll help. And we won’t fly to one demonstration and come home. We can go humble, we can listen and learn in many conversations.

So do me a favor: hold me accountable, okay? Ask me if I bought my plane ticket yet and I promise I will do the same for you. We’ll ask each other. Because I think that’s why we started The Kitchen, that’s why we’re here, to help us remember.

So do me this favor: You remind me and I’ll remind you that we can do more than just survive, that we’re actually here to pursue righteousness, and that while it sometimes it takes longer than we want, we’re in this for good.


[1] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schoken Books, 1947. Volume 1, p. 45.

[2] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name, New York, Schoken Books, 2015. p. 13.

[3] I was influenced by David Mamet’s use of this phrase in The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self Hatred, and the Jews, New York, Schoken, 2006, p. 180.

[4] Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, Unfinished Rabbi, Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1998.

[5] Rabbi Ed Feinstein, “It’s Complicated,” Yom Kippur, 2015.

[6] Rabbi David Hartman, A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices within Judaism, Woodstock, Vermont, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999, p. 259.

[7] Peter Beinart, “With Netanyahu’s Re-election, The Peace Process is Over and the Pressure Must Begin,” Ha’aretz, March 19, 2015.

[8] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schoken Books, 1947, Vol. 2, p. 309

 

[9] With gratitude to Yakir Englander who sent me this text and his response to it.

[10] Adapted from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, New York, Schoken Books, 1947,Vol. 2, p. 304.

[11] Michael Sfard, “The Israeli Occupation will End Suddenly,” Ha’aretz, January 23, 2016.

On Teshuvah

Rabbi Jonathan Bubis
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777
“On Teshuvah”
 

I still remember one of the first stories that made me cry. I was only a kid when I heard it. It was about a man with a beautiful family, who despite all of his efforts, could not make ends meet. His children were starving, and so out of desperation, he stole a loaf of bread from a store, but got caught in the process, was arrested and put in jail – for almost a quarter of his lifetime. Finally, after 19 years estranged from his family and hardened by the brutality of prison life, he was released. After being rejected by everyone he turned to for help because he was an ex-con, he found himself on the doorstep of a church, where he was greeted by a kind, benevolent priest who gave him food to eat, water to drink, and a bed to rest his head. But now accustomed to a dog-eat-dog world, he felt that the only way to survive was to fend for himself. So in spite of the priest’s generosity, he reverted back to an old habit: he stole – this time precious silver – and ran. The police didn’t take long to catch up with him, but after they arrested him, the priest came to the rescue, claiming that the silver was his gift to the ex-con.

And this is the part that made me cry – that the priest for whatever reason does the most selfless, forgiving thing. Despite the fact that the man totally betrayed him, even though everyone else immediately judged him as a dangerous pariah, the priest sees some spark of goodness in the man and gives him a second chance. The only thing that the priest asks in return is for the man to work to become more honest. And it was that little investment in the man’s neshamah that inspired him to completely transform his life. He changed his name, gave up stealing, started a new business venture, and became one of the wealthiest, most influential, most honest, and generous spirited people in his town.

Now some of you musical fans or Victor Hugo readers out there may have already figured out that this is the story of Jean Valjean from Les Miserables (#24601, #OneDayMore, #ToLoveAnotherPersonIsToSeeTheFaceOfGod). And I love it so much, because it’s really a story about teshuvah. It’s about changing one’s life for the better, the soul’s move back to its original, pure self.

We’ve heard stories like this before: the violent criminal who goes straight; the addict who finds God; the cancer patient who gains a new perspective on and appreciation for life. When you think about it, these stories of great change usually involve someone who was in a dire or life threatening situation, someone who had hit rock bottom, someone whose transformation was a matter of life and death.  Such stories are everywhere.  They have great appeal to many of us. But they do beg the question:

If those people can change under such serious and challenging circumstances, why can’t I change something about myself that is far less consequential? You’d think it would be easier to achieve?

For some of us, the answer to that question is because we believe that usually, other than in these extreme cases, we don’t tend to change. In fact, we may believe that we can’t change the core of who we are.  This is actually the main message of the antagonist in Les Miserables, Javert (who I happened to play by the way in Jewish summer camp when I was 16 years old). Javert famously sings in “The Confrontation” with Valjean, “Men like you can never change…”)

So, what do you think?  I’m curious to know, how many of you out there believe that we really can change if the effort toward real repentance is there? And how many of you think that we pretty much maintain our core traits/habits/inclinations throughout our lives, regardless?

Now, what do you think our tradition says on the subject? To answer that question, let me tell you another story. This time it comes from Torah (as you might have expected from a rabbi). Meet Jacob, or Yaakov in Hebrew. He was given that name – which means “heel” –  because he came into the world at the heels of his twin brother, Esau, and continued to pull on people’s heels to drag them down for most of his adult life. Jacob was a trickster. He was so intent on getting ahead that he stole from his own brother in a major way, twice. Maybe to guarantee that he was the  designated heir to continue his father’s legacy. Maybe to get back at his brother for being the naturally strong, athletic one in the family.  Or, both. But in any case, he ran away from home in order to escape the possible consequences of his treachery, and then spent 20 years being duped himself by his future father-in-law. How’s that for karma? Then, two marriages, two midwives, eleven sons, and one daughter later, it was time to go back home.  But that meant that he had to confront his deceitful past, with an inevitable passing through his brother’s territory. Terrified that Esau was just waiting for revenge, Jacob fell back into old habits- he resorted to cunning ways to protect himself in the confrontation. He tried paying his brother off, he prepared his people for an all-out-brawl, he even prayed to make sure God was in his camp. But then finally, the night before the fateful meeting between brothers, Jacob sent his family and all his possessions over the river, so he could be left alone – he finally recognized that he was the only one to deal with his brother. But he was also exposed. And it was then that the Torah states, va’ye’avek ish imo, “a man wrestled with Jacob” until the break of day.” Our tradition has many different interpretations of what, exactly, he was wrestling. Some say it was his brother. Others believe it was an angel. And most poetically, it seems that he was really just fighting himself and his own past. Whatever it was, something changed in Jacob that night, and he received a new name and a true blessing from the man as a symbol of that change. Instead of Yaakov, the person pulling at people’s heels, he became Yisrael, the God wrestler. And that morning, he bowed down to his brother, accepting and feeling true remorse for all that he had done to him. They embraced, and they made peace.

Now this is not just any old story from the Torah about any old random person. You just heard the story of the father of our people. We are still to this day called Bnai Yisrael, the People Israel, named after our once-very-conniving, turned-repentant-and-contemplative forefather. Ours is a people that does not prize perfection, but values our efforts to wrestle with ourselves and the world and come out transformed.

So, to the question can human beings change, Judaism answers a resounding, “yes!” We have the capacity to change, to do teshuvah. But our rabbis go one step further- they say not only can we, but that we must do teshuvah. And it’s not because that if we don’t then we’ll be punished. It’s because they believed that teshuvah is a part of life, a part of our very existence. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim says that teshuvah- the capacity for change- was created before the world was brought into being. Similarly, ­­­the Zohar, the primary work of Jewish mysticism says that the world would not be able to exist without teshuvah. Because without it, the world and everyone in it would not have the ability to grow, adapt, create, heal. Without teshuvah, there’s no chance of tikkun.

So if teshuvah is supposedly in our nature, why is it so hard? Every morning, traditional Jews recite Birkot Hashachar, or blessings of the dawn. They are now recited in shul, but they used to be said upon first waking up, each blessing associated with a particular element of our morning ritual. Baruch Ata Adonai matir asurim “praised are you for releasing us from the bonds of our sheets. “ baruch ata…ro’ka ha’aretz al hamayim “praised are you for making earth and water meet, for allowing our feet to spread across the expense of space between bed and floor and once again feel the firmness of earth. Baruch ata hamechin mitzadei gaver “praised are you for making our steps strong, for giving us the fortitude to go out into the world.

These blessings are there for every routine morning gesture because these actions are not to be taken for granted. Because getting out of bed can be harder some days than others. Trying to make teshuvah is like trying to get out of bed on a cold, San Francisco morning. Sure, you know that you need to get up. You have work to do, you gotta get the kids out of bed, you wanna start the day off right… “But it’s just oh so comfortable in those sheets. They’re so soft and cozy, and it’s so cold out there. Let’s just stay in bed for a little while longer. Ok, maybe a little longer.” Get the picture? We get so used to and comfortable with where we are now. It’s cozier. Safer. Especially on the days when we don’t know where our feet are going to hit the floor. That’s what big change feels like. It’s like our feet extending into an abyss while praying to find solid ground.  Baruch ata, roka ha’aretz al hamayim, “praised are you…who allows us to find solid ground from a sea of uncertainty. Change is scary. Because it takes away the foundation from which our current identities are built. Because it takes stepping out into a new world that we don’t know. And that’s why sometimes we decide to not “get out of bed,” to stick with the cozy, with the less scary.

But when we acquiesce to the cushy status quo, or even when we bravely leap out of bed and fall, it can make us lose faith in ourselves, in our potential to grow. It can make us give up and say, “Well I’ve gotten along just fine the way I am until now, no harm in continuing in the same way.” But deep down, we know that sticking to the bad habits we have takes its toll on our neshamas, and on our relationships to others. We rob ourselves of hope. Let’s pause for a second to think of examples of this in your own life, or in the lives of people you know. What habitual choices cause pain, yet change is still not made despite the collateral damage?

We know that we must do teshuvah. The big question is how. Some of you might have noticed that even in our story of Jacob, he was only transformed when he thought that he was faced with a life and death situation. When he believed that his brother was on the verge of killing him and his family, it was then that he was ready for a change. The Rabbis noticed this trend too, that people only tend to change when they have to, when it’s a matter of their own survival. And that is probably one of the main reasons why that come High Holiday time, our liturgy starts sounding a lot more grim. Mi yichyeh u’mi yamoot, “who will live, and who will die? Who by fire and who by water?” B’Rosh Hashanah Tikateivun u’v’yom tzom kippur techatemun, “on Rosh Hashanah we will be sealed either in the Book of Life…or that other book, and on Yom Kippur our fate is sealed.” What’s the implied message? That we have between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, 10 days to guarantee that we make it into the Book of Life.

Now are the Rabbis trying to scare us? Yes. But not because they wanted to manipulate us. The rabbis thought that doing teshuvah was truly a matter of life and death. Rabbi Alan Lew talks about this intense Book of Life metaphor in his astounding book on the High Holiday season:

This is a true story…it is about you. It is really happening, and it is happening to you, and you are seriously unprepared. And it is real whether you believe in God or not. Perhaps God made it real and perhaps God did not. Perhaps God created this pageant of judgment and choice, of transformation, of life and of death. Perhaps God created the Book of Life and the Book of Death, Teshuvah and the blowing of the shofar. Or perhaps these are all just inventions of human culture. It makes no difference. It is real in any case…This moment is before us with its choices, and the consequences of our past choices are before us, as is the possibility of our transformation. This year some of us will die, and some of us will live…

Pretty intense, huh? Doing teshuvah for the rabbis is serious business. So how do we do it? By opening our hearts and doing an honest accounting of our souls, by praying, by fasting, by casting our sins into the river, by apologizing – by wrestling.  Va’ye’a’vek Ish Imo. Va’ey’a’vek, the Hebrew word for wrestle comes from the same root as “dust.” Because struggling with ourselves involves getting down in the dirt, fighting with all we got, and unearthing that spark of goodness in us that we know was always there.

The road toward real teshuvah may be long, hard and scary. But it’s also definitely worth it. Because when it’s done right, it can be completely transforming. Netivot Shalom teaches that when we do true teshuvah, we become a bri’ah chadashah, a completely new being, as if we were born anew. This may sound Christian to you. Well, where do you think Jesus got it from? It’s an amazing concept! The most insecure, pessimistic parts of ourselves tell us that we can’t change. Our tradition tells us that we can, we were made to, and when we put our effort into it, we can completely transform our life, to the life that we were born to live. Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah. Let’s take this time seriously. Let’s pray and struggle for change as if our life depended on it.

RISK

Noa Kushner
The Kitchen
September 29, 2016 / Rosh Hashana 5777

1.
When Abraham was a baby they say he wandered outside. Back then, God hadn’t caught on yet. Young Abraham wandered outside and looks up. He sees the moon, he sees the stars. Everyone at that time prayed to these glorious bodies of light. But when the sun sets, and then the moon sets, Abraham realizes there must be something else, something beyond either of these things, something that created these things, and he has a feeling of “not finding.” A feeling like, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something is not there.”

But we learn, it is precisely in his “not finding” that the presence of God was first revealed to him.[1]

A Hasidic rebbe thousands of years later will think of this story and say, “Sometimes what needs to be revealed begins with the not-finding.”[2]

If anyone had a moment this year where you looked at your news feed or front page and asked yourself, “How is this possible? How did we get to this as a country? How did we come to this in our history? How did we get to this election? this violence? this level of disparity between one neighborhood and another? If you had a moment that was disorienting, like looking for your glasses in the morning, if you had a moment like, “Am I missing something? Did that really just happen? What am I not seeing?”

Then you, too, have had a moment of “not-finding.”

What are we not finding? What have we lost?

I believe what’s missing is the dream of justice that underlies every interaction that we have in our society.

And that disoriented, “something is missing” feeling we have is nothing less than our realization that our collective dream that guides how we treat one another in this country has fallen trampled by the wayside, and there is serious work to be done if we’re to reclaim it.

.....

READ THE WHOLE DRASH HERE.

 

Chukat

Hannah Ellenson / June 17, 2016

When I was 6, the Baskin Robbins ice cream store on the corner of my school was burned down, as were all of the stores in the strip-mall next to it. I knew something bad was going on because my parents had to pick me up from school early. I was scared, but I also knew I was safe. I found out that the police — who I knew were supposed to protect me — had beaten up a person who had done something “bad.”

Years later, I discovered of course that the man they had beaten was named Rodney King and those fires had been the famous LA Riots. As a White, Ashkenazi Jewish 6 year old, I had no idea that Black people were treated differently by anyone, especially the police.

When we meet the Israelites this week, they’re not in a great mood. Don’t get me wrong — they’ve been through a lot recently. They’ve been walking around that desert for what feels like ages and Miriam has just died. Miriam was important for lots of reasons. But the reason why she was so vital to the Israelites in this exact moment is because she was the one that was able to find water no matter where they went, which is a particularly important task in the desert.

Moses then gets into major trouble with God because he hit a rock in what ended up being a successful effort to get water to come out of it.

And even though the Israelites now have water, they’re still complaining about everything, and God has really started to get pretty angry. God decides at this point it’s time for a punishment not just for Moses, but for all of the Israelites.

The punishment is this: God sends all of these huge snakes to bite them. It sounds fake, I know (which it might be), but this is how the story goes. The snakes that God sent to punish the Israelites start biting people and many get sick and die.

We don’t normally like to think of God as an all-powerful, punishing deity, so this is not a story that’s told very often, but why not? Including the stories we don’t often hear — whether from the Torah or in regular everyday life — are what makes life more complicated and beautiful and interesting. Introducing another layer helps us better understand the relationship between God and the Israelites in this case or Black people’s experiences with police to be a little more timely.

But before we dive into that, let’s go back to the snakes for a second — what happens next? “God said to Moses, ‘Make a snake figure and mount it on a staff. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover’…when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover” (Numbers 21:8–9)

If the Israelites looked right at the very thing that was about to kill them, the thing that was the scariest for them in that moment to encounter directly, is now what is supposed to cure them.

What does it mean to really look and see something — to truly see it and confront it in an effort to make things better — even in the moments that are the most frightening?

It’s not always so easy to see things on our own. Sometimes we need them pointed out to us. As a White woman, it’s my responsibility in this moment to listen to the stories of Black people so that I can become a true ally in confronting race relations in this country directly, so I can see it, so I can help move this problem closer to a cure.

Dr. Brian Williams, a healer, a Black man, and the surgeon who operated on the police officers who were killed in Dallas last week, said: “When I’m at work dressed in my white coat the reactions I get with individuals and the officers I deal with on a daily basis is much different to what I would get outside the hospital in regular clothes and my fear and mild inherent distrust in law enforcement, that goes back to my own personal experiences that I’ve had in my own personal life as well as hearing the stories from friends and family that look like me, that have had similar experiences.”

This isn’t easy to hear — it’s easier to assume that everyone gets along. But we know that isn’t true — we don’t live in a post racial America.

The videos of Black people being beaten or killed that have been widely shared on social media are impossible to ignore. Most recently, the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana were particularly gruesome. But we must see them — the videos, the pictures of these men with their loved ones, the stories of their lives — to try to understand just a little bit of the fear and distrust that Dr. Williams was talking about.

Seeing — or understanding — is to become responsible, and no amount of denial can change that responsibility.

There’s a story in the Mishna about Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarya’s cow. The rabbis come to understand that the owner of the cow is violating the rules of Shabbat, and they ask, how could the great Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariya break the laws of Shabbat? That just wouldn’t happen. And even more than that, everyone knows that he has great herds of cattle, so what sense does it make to speak of just one cow?

The Talmud answers its own questions: the cow did not actually belong to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariya. In fact, it belonged to his neighbor. But he did nothing about it. He did not protest the cow’s owner’s actions, and so it was referred to as his. (Shabbat 54b)

Rabbi David Rosenn explains:

If you do not protest a wrong, you come to own it. It may not have been yours to begin with, but enough willful ignorance can make people refer to it as yours. And they will not be wrong.

Now that we have seen, what can we do? What does it mean to look at the snake in this case? Seeing on its own is unfortunately not the cure here. Seeing will not bring Sandra Bland or Rekia Boyd or Tamir Rice back to life. Looking at the most ugly, racist parts of our society must be the start to more.

Now we must take action — show up; donate to bail funds for Black Lives Matter protestors; write to city officials to encourage partnership community policing efforts; if you’re White, ask your friends and family members of color how they’re doing. The killing of Black people by racists is sadly not new, it is just now more visible to White people.

I now, of course, know more about race and race relations than I did when I was six, and while that’s incredibly painful and challenging sometimes, I feel privileged to hold the complexity of life, to see that which I couldn’t before.

Every morning, we’re supposed to recite the following blessing: Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, poke’ach ivrim — Blessed are You, Adonai, who opens the eyes of the blind.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Noa Kushner / May 13, 2016

There is a really famous story, maybe you heard it, about a man named Reb Zusya. Zusya was crying on his death bed. All his students were gathered around and they were trying to comfort him, asking him what was wrong.

“Are you worried,” asked the first one, that when you die God will ask you,’Reb Zusya, why weren’t you like Abraham Aveinu / our father?’

“No.” said Zusya, but he kept on crying.

“Well, are you worried,” asked the second, that God will ask you, ‘Why weren’t you like Moshe Rabbeinu?’

“No,” said R. Zusya, the tears rolling down his cheeks.

“What is it?” asked the third student, “Why are you crying?” R. Zusya looked at them.

“I’m worried that God will ask me, “Reb Zusya, why weren’t you Reb Zusya?”

Of course, in our early days in rabbinic school, call it rabbi humor, we used to amend the story and say on our death beds we would cry that we were not even like Reb Zusya.

It is not so easy to be who we are, especially when “who we are” is a moving target.

Marcia Falk (she lives here in the East Bay) is an amazing liturgist. Over thirteen years, she rewrote the siddur / prayerbook. It is the real deal, she didn’t even just rewrite the English, she rewrote the Hebrew using metaphors and illusions from Torah -- she wanted prayers that reflected a divinity that is immediate and everywhere, and not necessarily learning so hard on the king / warrior / hierarchical images, and I can tell you there is some gorgeous stuff in the book.

I’m bringing it up b/c she re-wrote the shabbat blessing for children. Traditionally we say (for boys), May you be like Ephraim and Menasheh, Joseph’s sons, possibly because (as I heard from journalist Peter Beinart) these are the only sons in Torah to actually get along, so it surely a blessing worth knowing.

But in her version of the blessing, Falk changes it to:

Heyeyh asher t’hiyeh / May you be who you are

V’hayeh baruch ba-asher tih’yeh and be blessed in all that you are.

This is a beautiful blessing! I can’t help but think poor Zusya might have benefitted from it. Not to mention us.

But I still wonder respectfully about the blessing of being only who we are now. I worry that if we cling too tightly to who we are now nothing new can start to ferment in us. What about who we might be? Doesn’t that deserve some air time too?

This all reminds me (and I am sure Falk has this in mind) of Moshe and God at the burning bush.

Let me set this up for you. In case you were drunk during seder, Israel has been enslaved for generations and we cried out under the weight of our burdens. God hears our cry and finally wants to act. So God catches a man, Moshe’s attention with a bush that is on fire but does not burn to the ground. There God makes a big pronouncement. God says, “I have heard the cries and I will free Israel, and you Moshe, you standing here at this fire, you will help me do it.” It is a big speech and I imagine God practicing it many times in front of the mirror.

Moshe’s first reaction is to turn the task down, to say he is not the one, for Moshe does not trust himself. “Who am I?” he asks. “Who am I to do this?” And in fact, Moshe spends the next many verses coming up with multiple reasons and the insurmountable barriers, he articulates all kinds of resistance and explains to God why he is not the one for this job. (He is a bad speaker, the Israelites won’t listen, etc.)

Now God has a difficult challenge in this moment. God must teach Moshe, who, make no mistake, God needs, God cannot free Israel without Moshe -- God needs to teach Moshe that he is enough right now to be a key part of making what needs to happen, happen, and God must show Moshe the promise of who he might eventually grow to be. Both.

How does God do it? Well, when Moshe tells God that if he is going to go to the Israelites he is going to need some kind of proof, some kind of name from God, the equivalent of a divine card, in response, God gives Moshe the best name ever, because it is a teaching embedded in a name:

Ehyeh asher ehyeh.  Ehyeh asher ehyeh which can be understood as, “I am what I am” / but equally can mean, “I will be what I will be.”

What a crazy name! What kind of a name is this?

It cannot be just a name, it must be a teaching.

Because God needs to model for Moshe how to be whole and ready now without giving up on what might be in the future.

Right? Because, if God were just to say, “I am who I am,” as in, “everything you need to know is right here,” things are looking fairly bleak. That is, there is little to no indication at the burning bush that God, who, let’s face it, has been completely out of the picture for generations and generations of slavery, is ready for a full-on, prime-time come back. Not to mention there is zero indication that Moshe, who is basically a fugitive shepherd (not looking great on the resume) has any interpersonal skills at all, let alone any kind of leadership capacity.

However, if God were only to talk about the future, if God were only to say, “I will be what I will be,” Moshe might not see what is profound about a God that hears the cries now -- even if, especially when redemption is still out of reach. And Moshe might not be able to find the blessing in the person he is right now at this fiery, confusing moment. You see, Moshe doesn’t just need to know he’ll be great one day, he also needs to know he already is someone who turns aside and hears the voice of God when no one else will dare to listen or even acknowledge the value of doing such a thing. Moses needs to know that he is, as we are, someone who is made in the image of God, just as he is, no matter what happens or does not happen in the future.

“Don’t you get it?” God says to Moshe when Moshe complains he is not enough, he is heavy of speech, can’t get the words right, will never make a good spokesman, “Don’t you get it?” God says, “I made you. I made eyes. I made mouths. You got this. Whatever you have right here, right now, it is more than enough. I should know, I wrote the instruction book on you. You are who you are, Moshe just as I am who I am right now and it is good. It is good enough as it is.”

R. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about this. He says, …[Being made in the image of God] does not refer to… “the best in man,” “the divine spark,” “the eternal spirit,” or “the immortal element” in people. It is the whole person and every person who was made in the image and likeness of God. It is both body and soul, sage and fool, saint and sinner, people in their joy and in their grief, in her righteousness and wickedness. The image is not in a person; it is that person.

Indeed, (he writes) Jewish piety may be expressed in the form of a supreme imperative: Treat yourself as an image of God. (Heschel, Insecurity of Freedom, pp.152,156).

It is as if God says to Moshe, “You need a name, you want proof to take back to the Israelites? You want a card? Moshe, you are my card.”

God says: “Just as I cannot do this without them, without Israel, I cannot do this without you. There will be no freedom if you do not play along.”

In fact, Nachmanides wrote (and I am grateful to my teacher Avivah Zornberg who pointed this out to me this week): This name of God / Ehyeh asher Ehyeh should be translated not as, “I will be what I will be” but as, I will be with who I will be.”

He says, “What is the meaning of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh –… “As you are with me, so I am with you. If they open their hands to give charity, so I shall open my hands…’” (Deut. 28:12) (Zornberg trans., p. 75, Nachmanides 3:13).

God is saying: “Moshe, you are not my right hand man, you are my right hand. If you go to help, I go. If you stay here, I stay too. I am what I am and I will be with who I will be, wherever you allow me to go.”

This leads us, at last, to this week’s Torah, parashat Kedoshim / holiness.

Kedoshim is about how to be holy. Dozens and dozens of laws, detail, and many specifics about how to live. As R. Roly Matalon teaches, Kedoshim is the de-trivialization of the rituals of the every day The insignificant becomes central. Every act carries within it the possibility of blessing. (B’nai Jeshurun dvar torah, 2015). So if we were tempted to think that what we put in our mouths is of no consequence to our spiritual lives or who we sleep with or what we give or how we run our businesses or the way we work for someone or how we treat an older person or an immigrant or our parents or children or how we count our days or harvest our trees, have I got a parasha for you. If holiness is a bridge, Kedoshim teaches us about the cables and bolts.

And the way Torah introduces all these laws is by saying, Kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh Adonai. / You will be holy because I am holy. Hear it? (eheyeh, tihiyu, it is the same verb).

I will be what I will be

You will be holy because I am holy

It is not only the verb “to be,” l’hiyot, that links the two phrases, it is the critical principle that underlies both verses: We are reflections, parts, images of God. At the burning bush, this means, like God, like Moshe, we are blessed in both who we are and who we will be, and here in Kedoshim it means that God’s holiness by definition is already ours, it extends to us. And the laws of kedoshim then teach us the many ways we can move towards that holiness and cultivate it.

Because, finally, returning to Moshe at the burning bush, even though he was already holy, he was still was called to do something – remember the whole encounter was to inspire, provoke, encourage him to help, to impress God’s dependence on him – remember the moment at the burning bush is not the end but the beginning of the story --

So too, our verse Kedoshim tihiyu / You are holy, you will be holy b/c I am holy, is also meant to prompt, encourage, invite, provoke and demand. Like Moses, we don’t get a choice. We’re holy. Like Moses, who we are will evolve. Like Moses, we have everything we need to begin. Like Moses, we are all walking around, mostly not having a clue, mostly thinking we are the last ones on earth God should count on. But like Moses, God’s plan is contingent on our participation. So this is my blessing for us all, that we should know we are being called and what that means, and Bluma, this is my blessing for you: may you be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are and may you be who you will become, because God knows, we need you. 

Unwitting

Noa Kushner / March 10, 2016

Being a tourist in Israel makes me a little uncomfortable. I admit I am a visitor to the country but I just don’t feel that way. Israel feels like home. So anything that reminds me of my tourist status feels accurate but inaccurate too. I am not here just to see things from a distance. And so I wince a little when I notice the locals exchange looks while our patient guide moves us down the street. I want to stop and explain to them, “It’s not what you think.”

We heard about the murder after our praying. We had just finished being with the finest  Yair Harel in an old Sephardic synagogue with a robin’s egg blue ark. He taught us piyyutim from far away places. Yair had fluency, ease, command, and it was clear Israel had everything to do it – he was a plant flourishing in just the right climate.

I was transported, I remembered who I was somewhere in those prayers. And as I walked trancelike through the evening, back to the bus, I saw Barak, our educator. “Do you hear the sirens?” He asked. I listened. From far away I could hear them. I could see some red lights too but I wasn’t sure if they had anything to do with anything. “Three incidents today.” He said. “One was in Jaffa, right in the spot where we were last night.” Yishai, our guide was equally grim. He said, “It was on the bench where I have sat many times while waiting for groups.”

I did not know it at the time but I would find out later: the man who was killed in that spot was a young American. 28. Went to Vanderbilt. A tourist. Not a soldier but also not not a soldier, either. An unwitting soldier.

It is hard for me to explain how compressed I was, we were, in that moment. I am not naïve. I get the updates from Ha’aretz and Michael gets alarms even on his phone. I know when someone has been hurt in the latest wave of violence. I also know the overall situation is unsustainable and complicated and many other things. But knowing from America and knowing from one night and one walk away are two different kinds of knowing. I became a different kind of tourist: less self-conscious, more afraid.

The looks on the faces of our Israeli guides as they called their family, the diligence of the people in our group as they posted on facebook, these constituted another kind of prayer. Relief communicated in short bursts, as if by telegram. I’m okay, stop. Don’t worry, stop. These were prayers not necessarily to God but not not to God, either. I thought: God can listen in.

The words and musical phrases of the piyyutim were still ringing in my ears. I entered our giant bus, the tourist bus, only now I eagerly sank into the seat. It felt like the safest place in the world, my armored tank, our submarine. We glided through the night back to the Carelton Hotel, with all of its five star comforts. I was relieved when they told us to stay in and yet, it was clear we were not going to bed. Trying to shake it all off, or down, some people suggested we go up to the roof to sing a little more, a t’fillah for heaven. There were also those who suggested we drink. Since the stars and the bar were on the same floor, this ended up being surprisingly convenient.

Life had not stopped on the roof of the Carleton and this in itself was a comfort. There were the usual rituals of glasses being poured and raised but I did not expect what followed. After we were served, to the left of us, close to the side of the roof, with all of Tel Aviv glittering behind him, a young man got down on one knee and proposed to a young woman. I saw the ring sparkling in the box. They kissed and we cheered, forever a small part of their story. Unwitting witnesses. Not exactly important but not not important either. Someone had to see it and we were lucky it happened to be us.

As a rabbi, I have often said to couples getting married: “Remember, you represent hope, but it is not only for you. Those of us witnessing your wedding also need that hope. We need a good wedding every once and a while to remind us that we too can still believe.”

Yes, that night, there was an act of terror in Jaffa and in other places too. Yes, the darkness remains. Yes, I am still only technically a tourist, but now I am a little bit of a witness too. So if you are in despair from the news, I can tell you, I am here to tell you, that even with everything that’s going on, on that night in Tel Aviv, the skies and bars were thick with prayers and there is at least one young couple who still believes. 

UPCOMING: R' ROLY MATALON - I AM MY PRAYER TO YOU

Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon / Congregation B’nai Jeshurun

Born in Buenos Aires Argentina, and educated in Buenos Aires, Montreal, Jerusalem and New York City, Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon came to B’nai Jeshurun in 1986 to share the pulpit—and vision—of his mentor and friend Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer. They worked together to revitalize the congregation and turn its focus to liturgical revitalizaton, education, interfaith cooperation, and social justice.

After Rabbi Meyer’s death in 1993, Rabbi Matalon became BJ’s spiritual leader. He and Rabbis Bronstein and Sol now lead a vibrant, diverse community of more than 1,800 households.

Rabbi Matalon is a founding co-director of Piyut North America, a partnership between B’nai Jeshurun and Hazmanah Le-Piyut in Israel. A member of the New York Arabic Orchestra, he plays the oud (Arabic lute). Rabbi Matalon is married and has two daughters.



Va-Ani Tefilati Lekha  / "I Am My Prayer to You"
We’ve heard that prayer can conjure moments of longing, heartbreak, enlightenment, and intense joy. We’re even aware that praying has helped people and communities reconnect to their dreams and recommit to their collective purpose in the world.

Maybe you’ve seen people singing their hearts out on Shabbat and wondered what it’s all about, or you’ve felt those highs and lows yourself but weren’t sure what it meant or how to connect it to any lasting ideas.

How might we access this staggeringly powerful stuff through what can seem to be a complex and ancient tradition? What’s the secret? How do we “become” our prayer?  

Rabbi Roly Matalon of the famed  BJ in Manhattan, is coming to The Kitchen to help us. Known internationally for his teaching on piyutim and practice, Rabbi Matalon will offer four interactive workshops, in a variety of formats and locations. Meant to work together, these sessions are less classes and more hands-on prayer experiences. 


Thursday, January 28
6:00 - 8:00 PM, 101 California
"PREPARATION AND KAVANNAH / INTENTION"

We’ll begin by asking and discussing some of the most primary questions, the ones that rarely get asked: What is prayer about, anyway? When we pray, what are we trying to achieve? What is it exactly that we are searching for? And how do we prepare to pray?

Members: Free
Non-Members: $36



Friday, January 29 (Kabbalat Shabbat)
6:15 PM, SF Friends School

R. Matalon will offer teachings throughout our Friday night t’fillah (service) on how the words of Kabbalat Shabbat help us to focus and fulfill what our souls need as we transition gently and with full intention from hol to kodesh – leaving the ordinary work-week consciousness in order to enter holy time and welcome Shabbat.

Services: Free and open to all
Ticket required in advance for those wishing to stay for dinner


Saturday, January 30 (Shabbat AM)
10:00 AM, SF Friends School

"UNDERSTANDING AND CONNECTION"
One way of understanding services is to see ourselves as traveling somewhere. How do we get from here to there? What’s the meaning and intention of each section of the prayer service? Where are we supposed to be by the end? For this shabbat morning, R. Matalon will guide us through the service piece by piece, as we pray together and create a map for this singular kind of spiritual journey. 

Free and open to all, but please let us know if you will join us. 


Saturday, January 30
7:00 PM, Private home

"BRINGING PRAYER IN"
In this havdallah session, R. Matalon will  explore with us resources for developing daily and shabbat prayer and ritual practices at home and in our lives. 

Members: Free
Non/Not-Yet-Members: Please inquire

 

FOR PARIS

"For Paris" (Shabbat AM, 11/14/15)
Rabbi Noa Kushner

Once we were running from Pharaoh, certain he would destroy us, but trying to run just the same. And then, instead of running into our new lives, we came smack up against the raging sea.

In the Technicolor version the sea opens and we cross to safety and sing to God.

But the Rabbis notice that Torah says, “The Israelites entered into the midst of the sea, on dry ground,” and they want to know, how could it be both? Either we started in the sea or on dry ground. Which is it?

Their answer? The strange phrase must mean we opened the sea with our crossing. The sea was only a sea until we entered it.*

Remember: Pharaoh was close behind us. We went inside the ocean, not because it was pretty or dramatic, but because our lives depended on it. There was no other choice.

In thinking of Paris, maybe we as a society, as a world, maybe we too are on the edge of the ocean. We stand, just having experienced the flattening and the narrowness of violence, and the future is uncertain. We are frightened. Which way is there for us to go?

The image that comes to mind in a form of an answer is of the people of the world pouring into Paris last January, into the streets.

I saw the aerial photos.
And it looked like rivers of people marching in solidarity and peace.
A living river of thousands and thousands. 

And I remembered this moment of crossing from Torah.
And the buildings of Paris looked like the walls of water on either side.
And the people were walking all together on dry ground.
It was impossible that they would all come out of their homes together at that moment but it was happening,
Their marching changed what had been and it changed the streets around them.

The crossing is never simple nor is it risk free.
But the way back is darkness.  
So we will go together.
We will do what our neighbors and family need from us in Paris.
We will leave our homes and gather in the streets. We will change what is around us by stepping in. We will make oceans part.
As long as it takes, as many times as it takes.

 

 

* Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, p. 215. See also Exodus 14:22, Shemot Rabba 21:9.

WEEKEND-ING @ THE KITCHEN

This past weekend, we took it up to 11 with a series of crazy-good events.

Shabbat PM:  In addition to introducing our full-on musical experience (more on that another time), Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc spoke to us from the bimah. Stosh is a bad-ass activist and black belt in Kung Fu.  Let’s just say that she speaks our language of justice, and we are thrilled to be in partnership together(check out our Justice League / Bend the Arc series going on now).

Shabbat AM: Jews, vino, and dogs sums up our Saturday afternoon in the park.  Thirty fabulous singles and couples (aka Kitchen 24/7) caught up with each other at Duboce Park.

Sunday at the SF Food Bank: The Freedom School rallied for a day of packaging string cheese and pasta at the food bank.  In the first two hours alone, we packaged enough cheese for 3,120 students in SF and 2,480 pounds of pasta.

Want to plug in?  Get in touch.  

- Lisa Motenko, November 11, 2015

Empty Plaza

I was not expecting to break down. I’d been to Israel many times. I’d talked about Rabin and his life, his work, like many other people, dozens and dozens of times.

But something happened as I was staffing another Birthright tour. There was something about walking to the stairs by the plaza where Rabin was assassinated that made me lose it. It was not the make shift, innocent memorials or the graffiti praising his name. Nor was it the empty utilitarian plaza itself, the open space just seemed very 70’s and reassuring in that quintessentially Israeli way. And it wasn’t even the heartbreaker that usually got me: the fact that Rabin was killed wearing shir lashalom in his breast pocket, that the bullet tore right through a song for peace as if it wasn’t even there.

No, what made it impossible for me to speak, what hit me with full force in the brightness of the vacated plaza was the understanding of what we had lost. How could I even begin to explain to these students what we had once held in our hands? Now they might never feel what we had once had felt -- that peace was just there right in front of us, that it was so real, we had little doubt it would soon come to fruition. I think I cried that day from the wide and terrible valley between what was on the day he died and what had come to be.

Twenty years later, I pay my deepest respects to the family of Yitzchak Rabin z”l who was a hero in every sense. I offer my condolences to his loved ones and to the Israelis who worked with him and who voted for him. But my personal grief is selfish and unresolved. I grieve the path untaken, the path stolen away, the lost years.

And yet, I take heart in this: History will not remember Rabin not only by what he did but also by what he was prepared to do. And so, rather than despair what has been done, I am also prepared to do. On this day I recommit myself to the thousands of those who are working on behalf of what-isn’t-yet, because it could still come-to-be. I’ll get back in line to help.

And I’ll also put a copy of shir lashalom / the song for peace in my front coat pocket where it belongs. It won’t protect me or you from death or disappointment, but at least we’ll remember where it is we want to go. 

-Rabbi Noa Kushner, November 4, 2015

Justice League + Bend the Arc series launches!

Last night the Kitchen Justice League and Bend the Arc launched a 4 month series around criminal justice reform.  22 folks gathered at the Bend the Arc offices downtown to start down the path of better understanding issues related to criminal justice reform and linking that understanding to Jewish values and traditions of justice.  Next up: reading 'Burning Down The House' by Nell Bernstein and volunteering at the Prisoners Literature Project in Berkeley.  Drop an email to Lisa to get more info, or check out the future meeting dates here