My Tzaddikim are Always Building; My Tzaddikim are the Building

There’s a strange scene in the middle of the desert

See, according to the rabbis we get everything we need in the wilderness -- Famously, manna, a food that tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste like

Fell from the sky so that we were never hungry --

Okay, so maybe we didn’t have it all figured out in the desert

Maybe we didn’t have a lot to our name, just sandals, a walking stick

But at least, with God’s help, we had the basics

 

This is why it is so strange that when we get to the moment

A few chapters ago

When God asks us to build a holy meeting place

The location of holiness

And God tells us that the key part of this holy meeting place

Is a cedar slab that is 32 cubits long, which is about 48 feet give or take

The center beam of the holy place

Not something you could slip in your pocket

Or even strap to the top of a station wagon

A giant wooden beam that is longer than this room, I think

It is astounding, a miracle

That although this beam was never mentioned before in Torah

No accounting of it when we left Egypt 

We don’t go a find a tree or several trees to somehow fashion it

And we don’t pray or panic for one

Because somehow that beam was already with us, it was found on us

(v’chol asher nimtza ito eitzei shittim! / and everyone for whom it was found with them, the cedar trees, Ex. 35:24)

It was “found,” not, “we went to find.”

 

Somehow, in one of a series of miracles

We already had what we needed.

 

Maybe this is the first lesson we can apply to our parasha, Kedoshim

A parasha that asks us to make a world of holy places through our actions

Perhaps this is the first lesson

No matter what is asked of us for the sake of building holiness

No matter how impossible it may seem

We will have what we need.

 

I need to back up

Because you know the rabbis well enough to know

That just like they do not miss the verb tense (v’chol asher nimtza ito  / and everyone for whom it was found with them Ex. 35:24)

 

They are also not satisfied with the idea that this giant piece of lumber is just, you know, lying around, or that it appeared out of nowhere.

And so they teach that when in Torah, when Abraham aveinu

Abraham our great great great great grandfather plants a tamarisk in Be’er Sheva, way back in Genesis,

he was actually preparing for this moment in the wilderness, and had actually planted a cedar for this very beam.

 

And they teach that, when generations later, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, hears that his beloved son Joseph is still alive – and strangely, rather than running to Egypt to claim his estranged son

Instead, in Torah Jacob goes to Be’er Sheva to pray

The rabbis say that Jacob goes to Be’er Sheva because Jacob has a master plan, he is going to harvest those same cedar trees, knowing God will ask his descendents for a beam from them one day.

That’s why he detours to be’er sheva!

 

Jacob tells his children, “Someday, long after we leave Egypt, God is gonna say to you, ‘Make a holy place where I can meet with you.’ And when that day comes, You better have everything you need right in your hands! So take this! Because you had best be ready.” (See Shmot Rabbah 33:8)

 

I can only imagine the looks on the faces of Jacob’s sons

Already insecure about their past, understandably

I can only imagine their lack of enthusiasm in taking along the most conspicuous, 32 cubit plank into their new lives in response to the possibility of a future vague request from a God they barely know at a time yet to be determined

I imagine their strained responses

As they consider storage costs in Egypt

The upper body strength that will be required

And try to imagine what this giant plank will do to their hopes that they would somehow blend in.

 

For anyone who has had a parent who told them to wear something or take something that they did not want to wear or take to school, to camp, to college, to a new home

Let your mind linger on the 48 foot cedar beam that Jacob insisted they carry.

 

Sometimes we have these unwieldy things, traits, traditions, dispositions, ideas, emotions

We get them from our parents

Or our grandparents

They are giant, practically beyond description

Maybe we know why we have them, maybe no one told us

Maybe we know why we are supposed to have them but have not figured out why that matters or what to do with them

Or maybe we don’t even know where we got them

We don’t remember anyone giving them to us

And at first glance, these giant, unwieldy features don’t seem to do us much good

They stick out, they are embarrassing

They are the equivalent of the seemingly useless 32 cubit cedar planks we carry around

We feel like Jacob’s sons --

“Baggage.”

 

But while we consider this, let us also think of Abraham and Jacob

Who were completely unintimidated by their present circumstances

And so sure of the inevitability of holiness manifesting in the world

That they invest aggressively, and outlandishly in the future 

Paying no mind to appearances

Imagining only the “grand commission,” the holy meeting place that would surely, without a doubt, someday be built

Consider Abraham and Jacob who do all they can to make sure we will be ready, “Have what you need at hand!”

 

Still,

It might give parents in the room some small comfort to know

That even the most careful and emphatic plans of the patriarchs themselves are not foul proof (Shmot Rabba 33:8)

The tradition says that when the time came

And God asked us for the materials for the holy meeting place

Just like Jacob had said would happen,

“The plank! It’s time!”

Some of us had made all kinds of arrangements

And others of us…. forgot.

Somewhere the message got lost

And just had to give whatever we found on us

[Could you work with a “Pony tail holder?” “I have some gum?”]

 

And still, it turns out

That, ready or not, everyone still miraculously had what was required,

Everyone had something “found” on them, something to give

 

See, the seeds of those cedars had been planted long before

Cut down, passed from generation to generation

And all this happened without our knowledge or permission

So that whether we knew we had it or not, whether we were ready or not

When the time came,

There was nothing we had to go and find, it was found on us.

 

Finally, as the beam is put into place

The rabbis say something wonderful and alternative universe-y and certainly midrashic happened:

I imagine it was like when two wires create an electrical circuit

And there is a hum

Or maybe it is like when two people meet, people who are besheret (destined) in some way and they cannot stop crying for joy at your shabbat table or under the chuppah

Not that I am talking about anyone in this room (!)

No matter, sometimes, things or people come into just the right place and everyone feels it, it is undeniable

 

And so the rabbis say just this, and they describe it this way

that the center beam, when it was finally in its place, that it sang.

 

Az yeranenu kol azei ya’ar lifnei adonai/ all the trees will sing with joy before God / Ps. 96:12

From our kabbalat Shabbat

And the rabbis say this psalm is describing the moment when the cedar beams, in their place, sang out.

 

Sometimes components can make up an entirely different category of whole

They transcend their parts, we transcend ourselves

Maybe this kind of transcendence is what God means by holiness, this is what parashat Kedoshim wants us to have

This is why we are asked to consider the whole in our smallest of actions

So we could have the experience of being part of a greater whole

 

But, with all this talk of transcendence, we must take care.

Because if holiness were a matter of transcendence only, our parasha would be a lot shorter. We could hang onto the part about keeping Shabbat,

and skip the parts about sharing the corners of our fields

(or our bonuses or stock options)

We could skip the parts about not placing stumbling blocks before the blind

(and not consider how we use access to information to undermine those who are “kept in the dark”).

 

See, if we are considering our parasha, it is clearly incomplete to talk about holiness as if it were another dimension, a world apart from the way we are in society and with each other.

 

See, sometimes holiness is about beams, runners, connectors, going from here to there. (Exodus 26:28)

And sometimes holiness is about enough of us standing still, standing upright, so that the very roof of a society can hold, so there can be space for the many.

 

So the midwives, you remember

After King Pharaoh makes his paranoid decree to drown all the baby boys in the Nile

They quietly refuse

Because they have yirat hashem / a fear of God, meaning they fear the kind of world where it is possible that midwives would throw babies in the river Nile

Because they understand: Standing up for these babies, this is a great deal of what it means to be holy.

 

There is no speech, there is no, “Let my people live.”

(Even while society reels back and forth) They just stand in place, they just keep doing what they had always done and so, ensure that babies can still live

 

And God rewards them, it says in Torah,

God “made them houses”

We are not sure what it means

But in midrash it says that because God saw the midwives were tzaddikim, righteous, prophets

God hid them

God hid the midwives by turning them into the upright columns of the houses. God hid them in the standing architecture of the houses

God “made them houses” means --

They would never have to face Pharaoh or his soldiers again, true

But more than this, God wanted to honor the midwives who had already become pillars of society

The kind of still and upright pillars that guarantee shelter for everyone else.

The midwives became the houses.

(Midrash HaGadol Shmot 1:21, Rosen source)

 

Sometimes we carry the beams, sometimes are the beams.

Sometimes we support the pillars, sometimes we must summon the courage to be the pillars.

 

In the case of the 32 cubit beam that was carried for generation after generation

Sometimes treasured, sometimes resented, sometimes forgotten altogether

As far as I know, it’s still around here somewhere

And as for the pillars, let’s just say, I’ve met them, some are hiding in this room, in plain sight.

 

So, Minna, it almost goes without saying

There are times the building process is obvious, we know where the piece goes

We know where we go

But other times we have to re-imagine the edges, and we never know if we are right

Sometimes we wait for years to be asked and no request comes

Sometimes we get more requests than we think it is possible for us to ever hold

There are no guarantees

 

But if you accept your role in this commission

The only thing I can promise you

Is that you might earn the opportunity to get a glimpse or two of the grand architect’s plans

And you and I -- we might earn the honor of listening for the voice of one of our oldest relatives speaking to us through the text:

 

“Be ready,” whispers Jacob. “I know this looks like a lot. I admit it’s unwieldy. But, trust me, someday, you or who knows, your children, they will need all this, someday we will be asked again. Just promise me you’ll remember: You already have everything you need.”

Jonah in the Hold: San Diego, Guns and Us

Noa Kushner

May 3, 2019

 

Sometimes the hardest thing is to speak plainly.

We always want to domesticate a hard truth, to gloss it over so that it does not hurt so much

But our job tonight is to try and see clearly.

 

Because if we don’t look, really look, nothing will change,

and we will become unwitting accessories to the crimes of our day

 

Let’s be plain:

A rabbi was shot, and a woman, Lori Gilbert Kaye, praying for her mother on Yizkor in a shul, is dead. An eight year old girl got shrapnel in her leg.

And this was not the first synagogue shooting this year.

 

If we insist nothing can be done or that we must come up with the solution now, or that our small donation, effort, or gesture is meaningless,

If we do nothing,

Then we will be bystanders to the proliferation of these crimes, crimes that are now, without a doubt,

In our own schools, our restaurants, our houses of worship,

In the houses of worship of many of our fellow Americans

Against the Jewish people and anyone who prays with us.

 

So let’s skip the infighting.

Let’s skip the feeling puffed up, emboldened, because we were right, this latest violence only proves our version of the world feeling.

Let’s skip the part where we argue about which has become worse --

The anti-semitism on the right or on the left.

Let’s skip the part where we throw up our hands and go back to a glass of Rose, or watching Game of Thrones or whatever your preferred form of denial is these days.

 

Let’s admit it:

Now we too will worry about security.

Yes, even in San Francisco,

Yes, even at the progressive Kitchen,

Yes, even though we don’t own a building, Jewish or otherwise,

Even though we have a plan, and we’ve talked to security people,

And thank god, this school is well designed, safe --

But now I will worry about my hands,

And now I will worry about each and every one of you,

And now we will be talking about things I never thought we would ever talk about.

 

Many rabbis, my colleagues, will come to the conclusion that we must build a giant fence to protect ourselves, lock the gates,

Mourn for our own

Maybe, in some cases, to continue to build a religion around this heady combination fear and grieving

To return to the very real traumas in our history and just stay there. Put up camp.

 

We are being plain, so I’ll just say it:

Trauma, no matter how legitimate, no matter its source, is not going to create a future for Jewish life,

Holocaust museums are not going to be able to narrate the next chapter of our story,

And vigils, you will forgive me, this borrowed ritual, will not light our path.  

 

Only a living Judaism – only living Torah

With moral demands

And intellectual engagement

With commandments for how we drink and eat and talk and approach the world, with a thousand prompts and gestures and responsibilities that remind us that we did not create the world nor is it owed to us, nor do we have the right to oppress because we were strangers

 

Only living Torah, only what is happening in this room and of course, many other places, only Shabbat, only this living Torah can be an appropriate response to senseless destruction

Not only because these rituals and ways of life are just that, ways of life for the living

But because these commandments help us protect the parts of us no fence can secure

 

The sfat emet teaches that we are commanded to “remember” two things:

“Zachor Amelek and Zachor Shabbat”[1]

We remember Amelek, the villain who takes a new shape in every generation, who looks to destroy us, who goes after the weak.

Much as we would prefer to forget him altogether

We are commanded to remember to blot out his name.

To stay vigilant, to stay smart, to protect ourselves

Thus, the security systems in all their forms, yes. “Never forget.”

 

But there is also Remember / Zachor Shabbat.

Remember Shabbat and keep it holy.

The command is not to just remember not to break the rules of Shabbat

(That is like worrying about the proper way to set the table but forgetting to have people over and to eat.)

The command is not simply a warning against rule breaking,

The command is that we must protect the infinite space within us,

We must protect what makes us uniquely human and dignified and special to our God, blessed be the holy name. 

We must protect our memories of a time when there were no mass murders of civilians by gun violence in our restaurants and hospitals and schools and concerts and places of worship in this country, it was not that long ago.

 

See “Remembering Shabbat” is having the discipline to see that what is, is not what must be.

Remembering Shabbat means there is not only security in the form of guards, there is security in the form of exchanged prayers, of the way we treat one another with kindness and gentleness

Of the possibility of holding the world accountable to the standards of heaven

Yes, even now, especially now.

 

This is why the Rabbi who was shot, while he was still bleeding,

Before he allowed himself to be carried to the hospital,

Insisted on speaking words of Torah, of teaching words of Torah

He wanted to remember Shabbat no matter what.

Can you imagine that we are part of such a brave and beautiful and valiant tradition?

 

Don’t get me wrong: Six days of the week we need to be out there in the world.

I want us to help Moms against Gun Violence, and the Parkland heros and heroines, I want to give money and energy to anyone who is going to fight the NRA.

This is not brain surgery people, give $18, give $180, write a letter.

Don’t convince yourself that you cannot do enough, and do nothing.

We are commanded to do.

I want us to give to anyone who is smart and thoughtful out there fighting anti-semitism in all its crazy mutations.

But in all that remembering of the Ameleks we must also Zachor / Remember Shabbat

Remember to protect the possibility of a whole world in us, a world of peace and everything we dream about

The work of keeping this interior dream world intact -- this is just as serious, this is also a matter of our lives.

 

Which leads me to another worry still, (I realize this is very Jewish)

Even though I don’t think vigils are the solution, as I said,

I also worry that the fact that there were no vigils.

(There were about 40 last time in SF alone)

No vigils, not even mention of vigils.

And I worry that this reflects a kind of settling into this new anti-semitic, violent reality where a synagogue shooting no longer has the power to stop us in our tracks.

 

I don’t care that his gun jammed and he didn’t get as many victims as he wanted  – we went back to “business as usual” in my opinion way too fast.

 

And now I think we are at the heart of the matter.

I am worried we have started to see this reality as inevitable. 

 

And if you think I am making too much of this, I ask you, just, in your heads

Can you name the last ten public shootings in this country?

Then ask yourself: Could the idea of ten public shootings have even been conceivable to you even a couple decades ago?

 

We have surely acclimated.

And I want to tell you on this Shabbat, seeing this violent reality as inevitable is asur / it is forbidden.

 

We would then become like Jonah, the prophet who was so bad at his job that he makes all the other morally dubious biblical characters look great by comparison.

 

In case you don’t remember,

When God asks Jonah to go and tell the people of Nineveh to repent, to change their ways so they could be saved,

pretty much dead center in the prophet job description,

not a stretch --

 

Jonah not only denies God, he literally runs in the other direction.

He runs onto a ship and, even though God sends a violent storm,

 

Jonah goes down the hold of the ship and falls fast, fast asleep, deep asleep (“vayeradim”).[2]

Closing off possibility, taking himself out of the equation.

 

The rabbis teach: Jonah thought he already “knew” everything, he even prays in the past tense, as if what he is asking for already happened,[3]

His eyes are closed, he is closed.

It is quiet in the hold of the ship

He convinces himself he has nothing to do with it, nothing to do with anything

His view is so close to a kind of death

No wonder he falls asleep in the storm.

 

Suddenly the captain wakes him up and yells,

“We are standing between life and death and you are asleep?! Get up! Call out to your God! Do something!”[4]

 

What is wrong with Jonah?

My teacher Avivah Zornberg offers that Jonah’s knowingness, his know-it-all-ness, his commitment to “what is”

without any room for possibility,

without personal responsibility, (all that lets him sleep in the storm)

This a camouflage for his deep fear.[5]

 

I wonder, maybe Jonah is really afraid of how desperate the world has become. Maybe he is really afraid that nothing he will do will matter.

 

We live in the time of Jonah.

We too are frightened that the world is beyond repair

so we have acclimated, and convinced ourselves that things are what they are, and they will not change anytime soon.

We tell ourselves all sorts of lies.

We too, have to shake ourselves out of our stupor.

 

This country is not going to magically become decent and whole,

This country is not going to magically fix itself.

And I cannot bring back the high school students and the doctors and the business people and the children and the mothers and the government officials and teachers and Jews in prayer who have been killed

I cannot make R. Yisroel Goldstein’s hand whole again

This country will not magically give up guns

But if we wake ourselves up

If we have courage and try to tell each other the truth and we don’t pretend we know how the story will end

We might help to make a new end

An end we can offer to our children  

Or at least we can teach them about how we tried.

 

And it turns out

At the end of the Jonah story

In comparison to all the other prophets who prophesize for books on end and get nowhere,

Jonah says one line, one measly line,

And all of Nineveh repents instantly and is saved

And the rabbis, one of my favorite turns of all

They say that King of Nineveh was none other than the Pharaoh himself.[6]

Yes, the very Pharaoh, the worst of the worst, somehow made it through the splitting of the sea

And became king of Nineveh

And he of all people, makes t’shuvah, repents and lives a decent life

As if the rabbis are saying,

“You never know”

as if the rabbis are shaking us by the shoulders and saying

“You never know”

As if they are saying to us, “wake up sleepers!

Don’t you dare sleep

We are standing between life and death here

The story has not been written

Wake up

Call out to your God

Do Something.

Get. up.”


[1] I am grateful to my friend R. Tamar Elad-Applebaum of Kehillat Zion for offering this teaching to me last week.

[2] Judith Klitsner, Subversive Sequels in the Bible, (Maggid Books: Jerusalem, 2011) p. 84 where she is quoting a lecture by Nehama Leibowitz on the Book of Jonah.

[3] See Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, (Shocken Books: NY, 2009) p. 91-3.

[4] See Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, 10. Also Zornberg, ibid., p. 84.

[5] Zornberg, ibid., pp. 89-90.

[6] Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, 43:8.  

B’shallach / Zeh Eli / Seeing God

1.

There’s a story (I think) from the ba’al shem tov, definitely from the hasidim

He was on a scholar in residence praying with a group of people in another community

He came home and his wife asked him how it went.

He said, “Well, the poor people were no problem, they didn’t take up much room at all. But the rich and important people? There were so many plaques everywhere and VIP seats and big egos,

The rich people took up so much room there was no room for God

And so the shechina, the divine presence could not rest with us.”

Ours is not a tradition where we try to see God, is it?

We don’t really allow holy images

Lest we get seduced or confused by those images

And start thinking that God is somehow more in those images

than in the frame around them or the wall on which the image rests

Or the eye that beholds the image.

In fact, Heschel once famously said (is there anything Heschel said that isn’t famous?)

We’re not allowed to have images because then we would then forget we are each and everyone of us made in the image of God.

Even Moshe

Who in a moment of “mission drift”

Asks to see the face of God

(right after the golden calf debacle, btw)

Isn’t allowed to see God’s “face”

But can only see the “back” of God,

Which the rabbis understand to mean

That even Moshe, Moshe rabeinu

Can’t really see pure holiness right when it is happening

But can only see it after.

This makes a line in this week’s Torah that much more astounding

We are in one of the most eventful parshiot / portions in Torah

It is literally the crossing of the sea

It is so resonant I don’t even need to describe it or remind you about it

Many of you know it intimately --

The story from Passover, leaving Egypt

The sea open and right in the middle of the sea

We sing a song (a piece of which becomes mi chamocha, the prayer we just offered) and in the middle of that song we said:

“Zeh Eli!”

“THIS, this is my God”

And I want to talk about just that kind of moment this shabbat

A moment of recognition of the holy one, of presence of God

A recognition of righteousness

(And this is the part of a Kitchen drash where I tell you that if the word God, an insufficient word if there ever was one, or even the idea of God makes you break out in hives, please stay, and say “holiness” or “ultimate meaning” or “righteousness”)

I want to talk tonight about this moment

Because I want to understand,

How do we know when we are in the presence of righteousness?

Not recognizing righteousness afterwards, not in a museum exhibit about a righteous time or a documentary or in a family story but right here in real time

Right now, how do we know?

We know that in our story they saw God in real time because the text says that the people all said, “Zeh eli!” This is my God!

Not, that WAS my God (like in the case of Moshe)

This is, right now.

And also notice that every single person recognized God or righteousness in that moment  

It was personal for all of us.

Eli! My God!

Not only that, but it was embedded in what I’ll call

a heavily political moment.

Yes, there are miracles too happening, big miracles, no doubt (sea splitting, plagues)

But those miracles still does not negate the fact that a whole people, our people

And everyone who understood Pharaoh as a dictator and his system as oppressive

Everyone – not just Israelites, this is important to me --

No one was checking IDs at the sea

Everyone who was willing to go was included --

To join us illegals, and to risk their lives with ours

As we became emerging political revolutionaries

Our platform was simple: It was our refusal to accept slavery as inevitable

Our refusal to accept that when a person (a brother or sister) was systemically suffering at the hands of the powerful few

That our only choice was to look away

Instead, we were the people of Ulai / Perhaps

Yes, it is this way it is now but Ulai / Maybe it could still be yet another way.

Back to our story, it is in this

personal / communal / political moment that we see God

And the rabbis decide teach that seeing God was completely democratic

In fact, they take pains to teach that the lowliest person who crossed the sea

(Which they intermittently describe as a hand maiden or kitchen maid

Which doesn’t make sense because the whole story is that we were all slaves

Anyway)

The kitchen maid

according the rabbis

…beheld at the Red Sea what even the prophets never saw (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 15:2:2).

What does this mean?

Maybe they are teaching us, that no matter our station, that when it is our own personal redemption we see things more clearly

Prophets, powerful as they are, are still intermediaries, after all.

Maybe when it is our very lives on the line

and the lives of those we love

and we understand it is our future that depends on a successful crossing of this sea

It is not academic any more, it is not up for debate

The crossing of the sea itself is a giant risk

And so easily becomes a giant prayer, as in, “Please God. Help me cross safely.”

Maybe if it were our kids, our relatives, our friend’s kids getting shot by police, in rough neighborhoods, in terrible schools, dying with remarkable consistency and without national alarm

If it were our families on the border, sleeping night after night on the streets

Maybe if we were convinced it was our daughters in danger, systemically and permanently victimized

Maybe if our last name was Blasey-Ford

Maybe then, were we to take the risk to cross all together, to march, to stand for our own lives and the lives of our loved ones, for the future, sure, but really for right now

For safety and dignity right now

We too would feel the fleeting but unmistakable presence of God, we too would see holiness for ourselves, just as we once did crossing the sea.

I admit in this private Jewish space what I will not say in the world

I worry that our relative power and privilege distances us from everything revolutionary, including and especially God

I worry we have become so afraid of losing what we have that risking for a greater good seems out of reach, and entirely impossible

I worry we can’t remember what it was like to be slaves, to really have our lives and our kids’ lives always on the line.

It is not that we don’t have worries as a Jewish community.

I, too, am rattled and a little afraid, and in pain after the events of recent months from the aggression in all forms against my religion and the Jews I love – not to mention our homeland -- aggression seemingly without any shame.

And so, I, maybe like you, am looking for strength – And so

I try to think of how those Jews I am so proud to have read about, to have learned about  

Who participated in the Civil Rights struggle

Who entered rooms to try to begin to change America, some unfriendly rooms

Only twenty years after the shoah / holocaust, less!

Israel still a fledgling state

I want to know what gave them the courage to join in that time, what gave them the koach to see their part through.

And I wonder if it was because they were already vulnerable enough

That is, more vulnerable than we are today, even in these dark times

Or maybe they were just tzaddikim –

Regardless, whether that vulnerability was circumstantial or cultivated.

I wonder if it was that vulnerability that allowed them to risk yet more.

See they didn’t have too much to lose

And it hadn’t been too long since they knew what it was like to be really afraid

And I wonder if somehow, the wake up calls of anti-semitic behavior now might

Rather than cause us to shut our doors

Instead help us see that there is no such thing as just a few of us being safe

One group, a few groups being safe, while others suffer

I wonder if somehow, the wake up calls of anti-semitic behavior now might, in the same way as it once did

Help us see we are only safe if we involve ourselves in the greater good in this country, proud and vocal and super Jewish and in for the long haul.

2.

In a second read of the same moment at the sea, it is not everyone including the Kitchen maids who see God

It is just…. the women and the babies.

Not what you expected, right?

And here’s what’s really something.

According to the rabbis, the women and babies are not seeing God for the first time

No, they recognized God, as in they were meeting again, as in they remembered God!

You see the rabbis determine that back in slavery, in Pharaoh’s Egypt

When Pharaoh said that all boy babies would be thrown in the rivers

And slavery seeped through every aspect of life

Many of the men decided to stop sleeping with their wives

And let’s expand this beyond gender categories and just say

Couples were not together any longer

But, say the rabbis, there were some women

And I am sure there were visionary people of all genders, too

Rabbis say these few, had faith, vision

They refused to accept a world where new children were an impossibility.

So, when their partners were working in the fields

They would go down and seduce them

And get pregnant, continuing life and hope.

And then of course, eventually, they had to deliver those contraband babies in secret

So some say it was the angels

And some say it was GOD – god’s very self – who came to be the midwife for those deliveries

To clean up the babies and tend to the mothers.

I am not making this up, this is Talmudic

See, Torah is teaching us that when there are tremendous risks, when we put ourselves on the line for hope, for the future, when we take a personal stance against oppression

God shows up.

This is why, according to the Talmud,

when we crossed the sea

These women and babies saw God first (Ein Yaakov, Sotah 1:35)

Because they knew what God looked like!

They saw the same God who had helped them before!

“That’s her!” That’s my God!” “Zeh (Zot) Eli!” “I know that midwife! She helped me when I risked my life one other time, a long time ago.”

This is why we risk. So that we know what God looks like. So that we will recognize her next time.

3.  

The rabbis suggest that just like in the creation story when God separated the waters and land emerged

Thus, “creating” land

As in, possibly, probably that land had been there all along,

So too, in the crossing of the sea

They say it was the same

The land was there all along, under the sea of course,

The possibility of safety, of crossing, of passage

Of a completely new way of being in the world

It was there the whole time

But it took this moment and these people to get God to bring it into being.

Just as God god’s self was there all along

And it took this moment and these people

To risk enough of themselves

To make enough room for one another

To understand that the stakes are too high to hide

To remember the risks they once took, before, long ago, or maybe it was their grandparents, great grandparents who risked

Which in turn allowed all of them to look up and see

What no prophet has seen before or since

Righteousness all around,

And God, right there, in all her messy glory.

(Mechilta, shir ha shirim rabba 3:9)

(Sotah 30b-31a)

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Don't Delay Me

R. Noa Kushner // Chayyei Sarah 5779

First, we just grieve.

It is one thing to cry alone, and it is one thing to cry in public,

But it is another thing still to cry on Shabbat in a Jewish space. 

Tonight we are not out in the world.

Tonight I want you to feel like when you come home at the end of an unimaginable day, when only those who really know you can see, and you cry.

First, I just want everyone in this room to have permission to cry.

I want to cry for the two brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal, who as far as I can tell were the purest of neshamot, the sweetest of human beings, developmentally disabled. 

David who just went around town shaking everyone’s hands. 

The brothers who were always first to get to shul to greet everyone who came in, who knew the details of everyone’s life. They knew who was sick, whose grandmother had died. 

If they were not malachim, angels, messengers from the one on high,

I am not sure who is more qualified.

And I am not sure we were smart enough to hear their message of sweetness and protecting each other, because we did not build a country where they could be protected. 

And I want to cry for Doctor Jerry Rabinowitz who, when no one would treat AIDS patients, before there was even effective treatment for fighting HIV, let alone public education, Dr. Rabinowitz was the only one who would see AIDS patients. He would hold their hands, it is important to note, without rubber gloves. He would hug everyone as they left the office, unheard of practices at that time. 

If he was not a malach, a divine messenger of healing, I am not sure who is.  

And there are so many more, I could talk about each one.  

And let us also cry that now the phrase, “Eitz Chayyim” / “The Tree of Life,” a phrase we used to use to refer solely to the Torah,

Torah is an Eitz Chayyim / a Tree of Life,

Let’s cry over the fact that now --

“Tree of Life,” will, for most of us, also connote violence and death. 

Let’s just cry that we can’t even say, “Tree of Life” anymore, 

That so much was irretrievably broken last Shabbat. 

So we need to first just be sad

For all of this and so much more.

And I am tempted to leave it at that.

To have a whole night of hearing stories that break us open and allow us to cry together.

And then I am tempted to cry a different kind of tears, tears of relief -

Because of the outpouring of love and affection we have received from so many.

Far different from other times in our history when we would be attacked and the world would turn away, or worse, participate in our destruction,

The amount of leaders and journalists and everyday people who have reached out to the Jewish community is surely unprecedented.

Our pain and loss is national news, international news. 

And right in our neighborhood, Rev. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani wrote us immediately and are here along with members of GLIDE to just pray with us tonight.

And I can tell you that last Sunday at GLIDE, when Rabbi Michael Lezak asked the room of 1500 if they would show up for the Jewish community, the whole room shook with applause, the whole room stood.

And, did you know that up in Marin, there is a Jewish campus with JCC and Brandeis school and a synagogue?

And this week one thousand kids left their public school to physically make a human chain of school children around that Jewish campus as if to symbolize their protection of our community.

And I’m sure you heard about the Muslim community in Pittsburgh that raised so much support -- 

Or you probably didn’t hear about the pastor in Texas who I met only once who gathered 50 people in a coffee shop and sent me a video of them all singing a Jewish Hebrew song (olam chesed yibaneh).

And I am tempted to just stop here 

With the outpouring of chesed, loving kindness that is not required but goes over and above,

I am tempted to just quietly place these acts of chesed before you, to wipe away our tears, to remind you and I that the world is still filled with good people.

It seems like that should be enough.

But with serious times comes serious responsibility.

And our grief tonight is not the kind of grief that follows, god forbid, a natural disaster,

Our grief and confusion is also because we understand that now is a time of danger.

And I don’t just mean anti-Semitism. 

I also mean the way this story is being told and will be told --

I want you to know there is a danger and there is also an opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong --

I am worried about anti-semitism for the first time in a long time. 

I used to think worrying about anti-semitism was about as likely as worrying about the reemergence of the bubonic plague.

But now, with the shattering of the illusion of safety in Squirrel Hill

I can no longer say anti-semitism is only in our past, only in our history.

But to be honest

More than anti Semitism I am afraid of the stories and the assumptions I am hearing from both the right and the left. 

How the events are being used. 

I fear the damage these stories will cause is more permanent and far reaching.

On the right, we have a narrative that we are a haunted people, that anti-Semitism is a unique hatred, the greatest hatred, a hatred that can only be met, with the greatest -- in lock step with the current Israeli government – policy,

As well as healthy contributions to the Trump campaign.

It will not surprise you that I am uncomfortable with this for many reasons.

First, sadly, a hatred of us, a hatred of Jews is not that special.

I hear many groups are hated now.

And I think we can safely say that being on the receiving end of hatred, this is not a unique Jewish problem.


Not to mention that we know,

When there is a vacuum of leadership, a consistent stream of winks and coded language from our president to the alt-right, just enough double entendres,

This vacuum enables hatred and all its siblings and cousins -- 

violence and vile language and prejudice -- they all come out careening into the daylight, 

A parade of living, full color hatred for all to see while trying not to absorb.

And so we mustn’t let those with narrow agendas 

Use our understandable fear in this moment 

To drive wedges between us and the Jewish ideas like welcoming the stranger, like the pursuit of righteousness

The ideas we hold most dear. 

We have to be vigilant, yes, but not succumb wholesale to dark predictions, not give in to those who ask us to abruptly change our moral positions as the entrance fee.

But beyond a knee jerk swing to the right as a response to anti-semitism,

I have another fear.

Frankly, a greater fear for us in this room,

This one comes more from the left. 

I am afraid that we will start to claim our victim status with too much attachment.

I am afraid we will again get really comfortable being victims -- 

Not because the Jewish hysterics are right and we are hated --

No, I am afraid we’ll claim our victim status with attachment 

Because in this political climate where everyone is a victim it is a way of fitting in,

A way of being a little less davka precisely Jewish. 

It requires less explanation to the outside world than say, a bris or even keeping Shabbat.

And I am worried we will claim our victim status with special attachment -- 

in order to downplay our unique powers and places in the world

To cover up the privilege many of us enjoy.

Because no one is threatened by victims,

Everyone has compassion for victims, 

And maybe we prefer to be victims and be loved without question, than to inhabit our power and cause the waves

Don’t get me wrong – something serious and terrible happened -- 

We deserve time to heal.

But I am worried that in America today it is easier for us to stay Jewish victims, 

Than to try and figure out how to be Jewish heroes, 

Than to figure out how to serve our God and make Torah live in the streets.

But if we prize our victimhood but neglect Jewish life, 

If we are more comfortable at a holocaust museum or vigil than in any living Jewish place,

If we only show up when anti-semitism knocks but not when we’re invited to the wedding, let alone the channukah party, the study table, or the shabbos lunch --

Not only is that not a Jewish life, not only is that taxidermy Judaism, a Judaism that only exists in museums and sad sad books, 

It also lets us off the hook for what we are here to do

In this country and this time 

As Jews, as those who do Jewish seriously

As the Jewish community on this very day. 

I love a story that R. David Hartman, z”l used to tell:

He lived in Jerusalem and he would get invited as an Israeli scholar to come and give a talk at Yad V’shem / the Holocaust Education center. 

And he would tell the group who invited him that he would teach them, but not at Yad V’Shem, he would only teach them if they met him in the birth ward of Hadassah hospital up the road. 

He knew: being a victim is a tempting place to stay,

But it cannot be the end of our story, there is too much to say, there is too much to do

There is a small piece in this week’s Torah

Chayyei Sarah 

That you might have missed.

In this week, Abraham sends his unnamed servant to find a wife for his son Isaac.

(This is after a long and winding romantic comedy like story, actually so long that the rabbis themselves remark on how long it is. And these are the same rabbis who wrote the Talmud and have a very high tolerance for digressions so that is indeed saying something, and of course, happy to tell you the whole story over dinner). 

After this story of a test and a well and camels and finding the right kind of woman for Isaac,

The servant is successful (!)

And he runs to Rebecca’s family to get permission for the marriage.

The family even asks Rebecca for her acceptance, which is pretty good for the Torah. 

And then the servant, excited, wanting to return back to Abraham to tell him the news, to complete his mission,

He says to the family, 

“Shalchuni l’adoni”  / “Send me back to my master.”

But Rebecca’s family says something like, “Not so fast, (this is a good idea but) give us some time.”

The family says, “Give us 10 – and the text kind of trails off,”and the rabbis note

Could be 10 days, could be 10 months, could be a year. [1]

And you feel the tension building,

And so the servant says, again,  

“Al t’acharu oti!” / “Don’t hold me back! Don’t delay me!” 

“V’adonai hitzliach oti!” / “Don’t you see? God made me successful! I found her! Against all odds I was successful! This is what I was sent to do and I found her! Let me go! I am on the holy errand of my life!”

“Shalchuni v’eilcha l’adoni” / “Send me and I will go back to my master. My mission is not complete yet.” [2]

I think as American Jews 

This dark and sad week

If we can have the courage to look at our time here in America,

We are maybe like this unnamed servant. 

We have been sent on a wild and unwieldy and holy errand to secure not only our personal future,

But to help grow a new branch of a great vision that deserves to live, a Jewish way to live, a Torah vision that can take root here in this country in unique ways,

That is a tremendous asset to this country.

It is a branch from none other than the tree of life.

We are the servants, we are the messengers.

And we have, against all odds, been successful!

We passed many tests, we have flourished and thrived here.

But as Ha-emek Davar writes on just this verse, 

The shaliach, the messenger, is not a success until the end of the mission.

Because, as he says, “Who knows what waits for this servant on the road?”

And Abraham, he says, the one who sent him, will not stop worrying until the mission is complete. [3]

And I would say, our mission, too, is not yet complete.

We have been sent and we have been successful but we are not done.

And God, just like Abraham, more so this week than others, 

God who sent us,

God also worries about what who we will meet on the road.

God worries we will stay where we are and not try to go further.

That we will give up on what it is we and only we are uniquely capable of doing as a Jewish community.

That we will give up on fighting for justice,

Supporting refugees,

Fighting for prison reform,

Enforcing tax laws,

Healing the sick,

Clothing the naked,

Feeding the hungry,

Keeping Shabbat,

God worries we will give up on raising chuppot / wedding canopies! God loves a good chuppah.

God worries we will stop saying kaddish

Or that we will give up on our idea of l’shon kodesh / Knowing that the words we say have massive implications for creation and destruction,

God worries we will give up on telling the story of leaving Egypt,

Or wandering in the desert,

That we will give up studying our infinite sources and 

Praying, that we will give up our beautiful praying,

God worries we will give up the practice of giving away money until it hurts,

And so many other Jewish demonstrative acts that only we do in just our way.

It is not that God thinks we are the only ones who care about how we are in the world, or who consider justice, or who study.

Of course many people do these things, some better than us.

It is rather 

that just as God loves all peoples,

God also loves our way of doing things

Our very particular way.

The tragedy of Squirrel Hill is yes, of course, another massacre in a holy place, a public place.

Yes, of course, anti-semitism.

Yes, sadly, what our nation has become.

But tonight I want to offer that the tragedy for us this Shabbat, 

is the eleven lost neshamot, the Jewish souls who can no longer sing

Their prayers that were left unfinished.

And I want to suggest that it is our work to pick up where their mission came to an unthinkable end.

We will pick up their mission not in their exact way but in our 

San Francisco 2018 Jewish way.

I want to suggest that we think of ourselves as literally sent on their behalf,

That we understand our collective mission, theirs and ours in this country, is to grow an eitz chayyim, a tree of life here.

That we understand this mission is not yet complete,

So we must do everything in our power to rise beyond this horrible moment,

In order to make our presence in this country mean something.

So that one day

In a generation,

When we meet the baby who --

While the slaughter was taking place

The baby who was being entered into the covenant,

The baby who had his bris at the same time, in the same building, on the same Shabbat morning

So one day when we meet him as an adult,

We can tell him,

“Look! This covenant you entered --

Look what it means!

Look who we are!

Look at our mission!

It is maybe not yet complete,

But taking part in it is our greatest honor.”


Joyce Fienberg

Richard Gottfried

Rose Mallinger

Jerry Rabinowitz 

Cecil Rosenthal 

David Rosenthal 

Bernice Simon

Sylvan Simon

Daniel Stein 

Melvin Wax

Irving Younger


Notes:

[1] See Rashi to Gen. 24:55, also B. Ketubot 57b

[2] All from Gen. 24: 54-56

[3] See Ha-emek Davar to Gen. 24:56

Take Yourself Out

R. Noa Kushner // Lech Lecha, 5779

The beginning of this parasha is very popular with the bar mitzvah crowd.

Abraham is called by God to “Lech Lecha”

To go out, to take himself out

To leave everything behind, to be a blessing

We remember the midrash of Abraham smashing all the idols in his father’s shop

Leaving for good

Such a clean break, so brave.

 

But it seems to me that real leaving

The real learning when one becomes a blessing

Is very rarely the moment when the ship leaves the proverbial harbor

But rather more when we are so far out at sea we cannot turn back.

 

Right? Because that is when the challenge and the messiness of trying to leave or figuring what it means to be a blessing kicks in.

Pretty much anyone can be a blessing for the thirty minutes of an airport goodbye

But what happens much later, after we’ve left, when doubts creep in

When our intentions are challenged not once, but many times

When there is no proof of a new destination in sight?

 

Or how about even before we leave, when we don’t even know if we are supposed to leave or not?

Maybe some of us are in this very situation tonight.

 

And it turns out that Hagar, a few verses later in our same parasha, finds herself in just such a position

That is: She has to leave but no one tells her to go.

 

See Hagar is a slave, a maid-servant, a concubine

Who is able to conceive with her master Abraham when his wife Sarah cannot for many years

And this upending of the order of the house

Hagar instantly gaining in status

With Hagar’s pregnancy

Everything turns.

Hagar becomes a threat

And in retaliation, she is mistreated by her masters.

 

Usually, in readings of this Torah, Sarah, the matriarch of the house gets all the blame.

There are lots of texts about competition between women, written of course by all men.

Sarah vs. Hagar, Hagar vs. Sarah

But let’s be honest,

Vacant Abraham tells jealous Sarah to do whatever she wants to Hagar

So the oppression comes from every source, every direction.

This is important.

It is important to understand that everyone is in on Hagar’s affliction

It is not that she has some enemies and some friends, some allies and some who can’t be trusted  

Rather, everyone takes part in her degradation

There is simply no safe place for Hagar to rest.

 

And I was thinking of this text because I think there are many of us now

Who for many reasons

also feel we are fighting forces of oppression from many more directions, there are fewer places to rest.

I was drawn to Hagar who just runs away

Later in Torah she will become a matriarch herself

But now, she doesn’t know that

She just knows she is powerless and maligned

And so she runs away, pregnant, into the wilderness

 

Now remember, at the beginning of the parasha, I told you, Abraham runs away too.

God says to him: “Lech lecha / Take yourself out, away from everything you know”

But, unlike Hagar, he is seen as a hero

Because, see, he has an invitation from God

He doesn’t know where he is going and believe me,

you don’t have to look deep in the text to see he has his own lapses of confidence and moments of fear

But I have to think that at least in those moments he can go into his pockets and pull out the “lech lecha” / “take yourself out,” that divine invitation,

And I imagine how comforting that command must be in those destabilizing moments,

I imagine him saying to himself, “God said, ‘Go to a place I will show you!’

‘Be a blessing!’”

That must be comforting, right?

Or maybe Abraham can even count on God reaching out, that happens a lot for Abraham

But notice, even with all that scaffolding and support, Abraham our father is still paralyzed with fear.

He has moments that are close to full on patriarchal trantrums!

And we don’t blame him

Because we know: Even if you have God checking in on you directly, leaving everything and smashing idols is still not easy.

 

Now imagine Hagar

Slave girl Hagar

Pregnant slave girl Hagar

She has no invitation from God

She has no invitation from anyone

She has no command

She has no opening scene to remember, no journal entry to re-read, no dream to recall, no angels in disguise walking towards her from a distant horizon, no ladder, no rainbow --

She just has oppression

She just has the intimate oppression of living in a house or a place

Where your lack of worth is not only assumed

Every look from another person reaffirms your lack of worth

Where your affliction takes place without recourse, without justice, without even awareness

Where the injustice is part of a closed, seemingly impenetrable, inevitable system,

That is what Hagar has.

 

See, Hagar has to write her own invitation

She has to command herself

Like Abraham, she also doesn’t know where she is going, that will be explicit in a moment

She also doesn’t know where she is going, that’s a given

But that’s the least of her worries

Not only does she not have any one to show her where to go

She also has no one to tell her to leave

 

And in this moment

When I consider Abraham and Hagar, two stories that mirror each other in many other ways, it could be a whole class

I want us to consider this week the courage of Hagar

The courage it takes to leave without an invitation

To upset things indefinitely

In order to answer to a God that is not calling you

Or maybe it is just you are unsure if it is God who is calling you or not.

 

In this moment in our country’s history, in the history of the world

When I consider the courage of Dr. Blasey Ford that will inspire me the rest of my days

Or the stalwart strength of activists in #Blacklivesmatter who refuse to accept the inevitable destruction of black and brown people

Or the resolute stance of members of the Israeli Soldiers of Breaking the Silence who speak out about the effects of the Israeli Occupation

Or the ultimate risk of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, his memory is our blessing, who was murdered this week

When I consider the courage of those who tell the truth in all kinds of ways

Who risk their reputations and even their lives to bring justice for the many

I am thinking also now about Hagar

And how she had to invite herself to go

That everything began to change but only once she ran away.

I think Hagar is our heroine for this moment

Because we live in a time without divine invitation or direction or reward

We have to create our own invitations

We have to know what the real rewards are.

 

We have to be clear what the real rewards are first because, let’s face it,

Hagar’s running away could be, would be perceived at that time or ours as selfish or ungrateful or overly controversial or unnecessarily combative or attention seeking or needlessly provocative

 

(Just as so many other activists are slandered and maligned and silenced and even killed in their moment

Just for insisting

With their words or actions

Just for highlighting in one way or another

that systemic and unending abuse is not what God wants

Not for one person

Not for a group

Not for a place)

 

And we have to be clear what the real rewards are second because running away or making change takes unbelievable mettle (faith!).

 

In fact, in considering Hagar and her courage

I think about how her lack of status must have made the very idea of inviting herself into a divine mission laughable, practically inconceivable --

And a painful thought crosses my mind: How it never occurs to Hagar that God is on her side

Because there is nothing in the facts of her life that would lead her to this conclusion.

She had to find the strength to leave seemingly within herself.

 

And yet, we know, God is indeed waiting for Hagar

And we must not only remember that God waited for Hagar, we must know

That even if there seems to be evidence to the contrary

God waits for us in this very moment.

 

Because as soon as Hagar runs away, immediately (!) the very next words

Vayimtza-ah malach adonai”

An angel finds her

And this angel does not call to her or approach her or use any of the typical Torah verbs angels use when addressing people

No -- the angel finds her

Which reinforces this idea that in the house of Abraham and Sarah it was as if she did not exist

Because the house of Abraham and Sarah, that place we know, it was like angel central (!)

Angels all over the place (!!)

No lack of angels

But somehow, as long as Hagar was in that place, that house,

She could not be truly found by the angels

So it is for us

Only when we command ourselves out can we be truly found by God who waits for us.

 

And once Hagar is “found” – now a spiritual inventory can take place

One angel asks Hagar where she has been and where she is going.

The spiritual implications of these questions are almost too obvious to point out.

Do we really think the angel, who knows exactly who Hagar is, does not know where she has been?

No, to paraphrase Rashi: “Where have you been?” means,

What is your spiritual autobiography so far?”

And, “Where are you going?” means:

“What will be the story of your life?”

 

Hagar is understandably, overwhelmed by these questions in this moment.

She answers the first one, she knows she’s running away from affliction

But she does not, or can not answer the second question, “Where are you going?”

Maybe it is that she does not know.

Maybe, having had to summon herself, command herself away

Maybe even the admission that no God told officially her to go, “to a place I will show you”

Maybe it is all too much

So she doesn’t answer this question of where she is going, not yet --

And maybe in this confusing moment it is another mark of her heroism

She doesn’t know and we don’t always have to know where we are going either, after all, Abraham didn’t know either

Sometimes knowing that we are leaving is enough

 

Who knows how long those angels looked at her

Fluttering their angel wings

Waiting for her to say what she would do next

Maybe it was three days and three nights like it was for Esther before she listened to Mordechai and decided to go into King Ahasverus’ chambers

But Hagar doesn’t even have a Mordechai

So she is quiet on the subject of the future

She will become a matriarch, she will learn to answer these questions, but not yet, not today

 

And so now, this Shabbat, like Hagar

We imagine that these angels that surround us

They ask us the same questions

And we realize that the future and our role in it is not set

We realize there are many answers to these questions of where we have been and where we might go

We realize that people like Dr. Blasey Ford and the Saudi journalist Khashoggi did not see the world’s trajectory as written, refused to see the story of the world as already sealed, they had just these same holy questions in mind and this allowed them to do what they did

That there are risks we might also take

 

Finally, at last last

Something extraordinary and singular happens

Even for Genesis

Even for this angel convention.

After the angels talk with Hagar

Hagar gives God a name

I don’t believe there is another moment in all of Tanakh where someone names God directly

It is almost inconceivable

Abraham names a place after a test that happens there, refers to God

Everyone thinks that is a very big deal

Moses asks for God’s name and everyone thinks that is a super big deal

But anyone giving God a name? Unheard of.

 

“V’tikra shem adonai hadover eileha -- 

And she called the name of God who spoke to her,

“Atah El Ra-i.”

You are the God of seeing.’

 

Why the “God of seeing?”

Because the rabbis teach Hagar realized that even when she was sure she was invisible in her humiliation and affliction, God still saw her. (Rashi to 16:13, Genesis Rabbah 45:10)

And there is no one God does not see.

 

And some say she prayed right then and there (Sforno to Gen. 16:13)

Because she finally understood that God was not limited to the house of Abraham and Sarah, and the strange rules there

But that God was in the wilderness, too, in her, too, and that this was her God

Atah El Ra-i / YOU are (my) God of seeing.”

 

So perhaps there was an invitation after all, maybe there was a command from God to leave, to go out.

But Hagar could only see it and understand it once she had extended it to herself

Maybe, like Moses, she needed some time in order to hear

Maybe some invitations come in the beginning of chapters

in short bursts of commanding phrases, super clear

But other times God has us call them out for ourselves in the words and actions and names that only we can understand.

Lost / Zigzagging

R. Noa Kushner // Yom Kippur, 5779 

1. The Lost Treasury  

It was in Eastern Europe, in the late 18th century, on Yom Kippur, in our small shtetl synagogue, that my community was having an astounding problem. You see, our Rabbi was leading services when he learned that the entire treasury of the shul, including all the money that had been donated until that very day, every single ruble had been stolen. Everything was completely gone.  

And so the rabbi addressed us, the congregation. Who could do such a thing?  To steal from the community! Who could do such a thing?  And on Yom Kippur, yet! How could this happen?  

Now the Rabbi in our community sometimes had good ideas. And this was one of those times. He proposed a solution. He said, “If the temptation to steal on Yom Kippur was strong enough for one of us, it could be strong enough for any of us. It could be strong enough for you, it could be strong enough for me. What we should do is this: We should all make T’shuvah (turn, repent) as a community, we should all consider ourselves guilty of the crime. And so as each one leaves the synagogue after services, each one will empty out their pockets. This way we will recover the money.”

There was a stir in the room as everyone whispered to one another his or her appreciation for this idea. And so, at the end of the day, eager to break the fast, we all lined up to file out of the sanctuary, and as each person walked out the door, we each emptied out our pockets. In a gesture, we each proclaimed our innocence as we crossed the synagogue threshold to the world outside. That is each of us but Yitzchak. For some reason, Yitzchak was holding us the line. He didn’t want to empty his pockets. He was insistent. His face grew white. We were restless, hungry. We wanted to get home.  

Now, I have to explain Yitzchak to you. He wasn’t born in our shtetl. It was only when the tailor, the richest man in town needed a husband for his daughter that Yitzchak came to our community. Now the tailor had searched high and wide for a proper groom, and when he finally settled on Yitzchak, we all heard about it. In fact, we had to go and see for ourselves if it was true. And it was. He knew at least 1000 pages of Talmud. Not only that, he was a master of all the texts, knew quotes from every source. And the secular studies. Mathematics, Astronomy, these he also knew. He also looked nice, like many of the scholars of that time, with brown hair, glasses. Everyone was talking about him.  

I don’t remember when it happened, but we also decided, after he had lived in our community for a while that he was a little too intelligent, a little too nice. Did he have to remember every single person’s name on the street?  

So you can imagine our silent delight when we saw Yitzchak clearly upset with the prospect of emptying his pockets. He started to feebly protest and we protested back. “We all emptied our pockets,” we chimed, “now you empty yours.” Yitzchak was trembling. “Please,” he whispered. “Please, anything but this.  Stone me, drown me, but don’t make me empty my pockets.” His voice got weaker and weaker as he begged. But it was no use, we were impatient, greedy, hungry to break the fast. We held him down on the floor and forcibly emptied his pockets. 

And you know what we found? A couple of plum pits and some chicken bones.  He was ashamed to be caught eating on Yom Kippur.  

Amazed, we all walked home laughing amongst ourselves, chattering about the events of the day. All of us that is except the rabbi. He walked by himself, his eyes sunk with despair, his shoulders weighted with shame.  

You might ask, “But what about the money? The stolen treasury?” And I can only give you the answer that was given to me when I heard the story told. The money doesn’t matter.    

You see, Real life, real T’shuvah, (a real turning from where we have gone wrong, a real personal change) means not being able to dictate what the outcome will be. Not for us and certainly not for another person. To do so would be to defeat the point. Because at the essence of T’shuvah is trust. Once we start, we cannot know how it will go or where we will end. The things that we thought were our worst sins often simply fall away. The relationships that we were sure were beyond repair take on a new form. And where we end up is often in completely untested territory, places unheard of. 

2. Zigzagging 

A few years ago, when the girls were smaller we went to Israel. However, we went completely on frequent flier miles and as a result were on nine different flights as part of our trip. I have kind of repressed it now but some point we were in Calvary, Canada on our way to the Middle East. We definitely doubled back at least at one juncture, maybe more.  

This reminded me of a section in the Torah which gives us in great detail every single place we stopped in our travels through the desert for forty years. 40 verses of detail. Naming each and every place. And here’s the thing: unlike a lot of places in Torah, regarding most of these places, we have no idea where they are. If you look in the JPS, it notes: Location uncertain. Location Unidentified. Location, uncertain.

It seems the rabbis, too, are drawn to this list of unknown places. If every word has a purpose and a meaning in Torah, this is a whole of detail for places that seem to have no significance. Why not just say: “and the people traveled for 40 years?” What could possibly be the reason for naming all those little towns in the desert? Dopkah? Alush, Rephidim, and on and on. 

The Rambam teaches that by listing this long and detailed journey, God emphasizes that everywhere we went, we lacked absolutely nothing, not one thing lacking at any station along the way. That even though we were in all these small and unknown places, we still were not attacked by desert storms or scorpions. In other words, it was a long 40 years but God did not leave us to fend for ourselves and the journey was not without its miracles of survival. 

Rashi says the long list of names is to show us that while we went from place to place, in some places, we stayed a long time, we even rested. 

We weren’t running around aimlessly. 

But the Rambam adds that we were given this lengthy itinerary in Torah to contradict the opinion…that we did not know where to go; that we were in a state of confusion,  “entangled in the land.”

You see? Without the listing of the places and the detail, while we certainly don’t walk away with the impression that the Israelites have a great sense of direction, while we don’t come across as an especially efficient group, we were not lost, either. There was an evolving plan. 

Maimonides even goes so far as to say, “The Torah clearly states that the route was near, known, and in good condition…They were not lost. The zigzagging and stopping were deliberate…(for which the Torah states the real cause.)” 

I’m thinking it was like our family trip. There were a lot of what would seem like unnecessary stops (Calgary? Seriously) but we were not lost. We were headed somewhere. 

So what is the difference between being lost and zigzagging versus stopping in dozens of unidentifiable locations for a generation’s worth of time but still being the way somewhere? To the outside observer the two paths might even look the same. 

To the outside observer, “lost” might even look preferable. 

Because as we know a Torah mandated life of zigzagging does not guarantee efficiency or ease. It just means the journey is deliberate. 

When we were traveling, we got to see some art. I was in one instillation that took place in an elevator. Once the operator closed the elevator door, we all moved up in complete and total darkness until we reached our destination. The walls and the floor of the elevator were heavily carpeted so the small traveling room even felt dark. Even the few seconds was disarming, until my daughter, then five, started to talk. In the darkness, we were not lost but we had no idea where we were. We just knew that we were moving somewhere. Zigzagging. 

In another exhibit, another place, we waited in a long line to enter a large room with a small group of people. Once in the room, it was so filled with soft colored lights and a kind of mist, that we literally could not see where we were. We felt weightless. We had no idea how big or small the room was, where the walls were or even which way to go. Again, there was no way to describe the location of where we were, we only intuited that there was a way to move through the room. There was a door on the other side, if only we could find it. Zigzagging. 

When I thought about it, in both rooms, really the only way of orienting ourselves at all was through the people we came in with. You could reach out your hand to hold the arm of the one next to you so you did not bump into each other. Or you could say something. In both rooms, you could hear people calling out into the darkness, into the light. Nervous laughter. “Are you there?” “I think I am kind of scared.” “Isn’t this wonderful?” 

One room of complete darkness and one full of light. We didn’t know where we were in either room. But we never felt utterly lost. 

And they set out from Mount Hor and encamped at Zalmonah. They set out from Zalmonah and encamped at Punon

We are told in Torah that a cloud or a series of clouds also protected us through the wilderness. Which is the kind of protection that, frankly, makes me anxious. It makes me think about driving in the fog. But maybe, as we went from place to place, not only did we not really know where we were, we also couldn’t see properly. Maybe that was the point. To learn the difference between not knowing where we were going and being lost. 

They set out from Zalmonah and encamped at Punon. They set out from Punon and encamped at Oboth

I heard a story from some Kitchen-ites.

They were lucky enough to have a house in Napa in the wilderness and wanted to build a path for any hikers who came through. 

Sounded easy enough but their first attempt was a disaster.

They tried to do it themselves and came back hours later covered in bruises and scratches, having had a close call with an illegal marijuana farm and some pretty shady characters. Not hikers at all. 

The second time wasn’t much better, they paid someone who then pretty much just put down a beginning mark and an end mark and essentially drew a line from one mark to the other, disregarding that the “path” went over a cliff, among other non-negotiable hazards

Finally, they asked around and did some research and found a person I will call “the path whisperer.” 

And when I heard this story a few years ago I could not believe it, it sounded so Chasidic. And to this day I am convinced that the path whisperer is the prophet Elijah who always comes to us in disguise.

And here is what I heard he said:

“I will build you a path but you have to trust me and you will have to come with me and we will do this together. Not only that, I won’t be able to tell you at the beginning where it will end. I can just help you get from station to station, without knowing in advance how long the path will be, or where exactly in what directions it will go.” 

And this was the way the path was built, without a master plan, one station at a time. I thought: zigzagging. 

Sometimes the zigzagging of life brings you into light, so much light that we are disoriented. I have seen this many times at weddings I officiate and I remember our own wedding. Michael, as you know, is also a rabbi so even twenty years ago we knew our way around a chuppah. And yet, at the end of our own wedding, we were so disoriented, so surrounded by light, we forgot everything we knew. After Michael stepped on the glass we looked at our rabbi with blank, quizzical faces. “Kiss!” He told us. So we did. Then we stared at him again. “Go!” He said. “It’s over!” We held on for dear life and tried to make our way through that light to the next door. To the next town we had never heard of and probably would never be able to find again. 

They set out from Iyim and encamped at Divion-gad. They set out from Divion-gad and encamped at Almon-Divlatayma

And sometimes the zigzagging of life brings you into so much darkness, darkness like we have never known. A set of coordinates on the map of darkness. A death. A loss. Something that seems irretrievable, irreparable. We are down for the count, the wind knocked clean out of us. 

And here too, we don’t quite know where we are. We look around but our eyes don’t tell us what we need to know. In these moments where we are bereft, empty, confused, and the only way to know where we are is to hold on to each other, to listen to the voices of the people we love around us as we walk through. To follow the words of Torah, of the tradition, not because those words protect us, they can’t, but because when something like this happens, they tell us what do to. “Gather!” “Sing!” “Don’t let go of my voice.” “Look for the door on the other side of the room, the one with the light underneath.” 

“Don’t despair. There is another town up ahead. It’s not that far away. I can’t actually see it and I don’t know anything about it but it’s on the way to the land that has been promised to us. You are not lost. We are not lost. We are zigzagging.” 

They set out from Divion-gad and encamped at Almon-Divlatayma. They set out from Almon-Divlatayma and camped in hills of Avarim

At the end, what’s the difference between being lost and zigzagging? Maybe it comes down to remembering who we are with, listening for the sound of their voices or for God’s voice. Knowing we are moving somewhere else, somewhere named. Maybe this is also the essence of T’shuvah. Knowing we are not lost. Knowing to listen for the sound of the voices around us, listening for God’s voice. Knowing that even though we don’t know how it will turn out, or even how we will turn out, we are moving somewhere else, somewhere named. 

Whom Shall I Fear?

R. Noa Kushner // Kol Nidrei, 5779

1. The Decay of Symbols 

The Kitchen went last summer on a trip to Israel, an incredible learning trip, we met scholars and activists and artists and more scholars.

It was just like Birthright except it was nothing like Birthright.  

One day we went with Breaking the Silence to Hevron.

Breaking the Silence is “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military. […]”

As they say it:  

“We have taken it upon ourselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers …are engaged in the [military] control of another population’s every day life. Our work aims to bring an end to the occupation.” [1]

When you consider that almost every Israeli serves in the Israeli Army, and keeping its secrets are, understandably, part of the fabric of Israeli society, the amount of conviction and courage required to be associated with this group is considerable. 

The group is controversial. In fact, Netanyahu regularly goes after Breaking the Silence, mischaracterizing their work, targeting their revelations, claiming their words, not the occupation itself, is the reason for international condemnation of Israel’s policies. [2]

But our guide did not seem like he was the problem. He just kept telling us the truth. Shai was a gentle and personable young man who was raised on a diet of mainstream Nationalism who only joined Breaking the Silence because he couldn’t stand what Israel was doing any longer. “I had to do things to families that I would not want done to my own family,” he said. 

Shai took us to downtown Hevron, what I can only describe as a shuttered ghost town. He told us that 3-400,000 thousand Palestinians still lived all around where we were standing and used to live in this city center, until Jewish extremists moved in, displacing the Palestinians. 

Thus the empty streets.

Soldiers who looked like the ages of my daughters’ high school friends were stationed in pairs on every block but they seemed to be guarding literally no one. 

In one kilometer there are no fewer than eighteen checkpoints.

We ourselves had to cross three just to be on the walking tour. With only a few hundred Jews living here, this is clearly not for the security of Israel, so who are these soldiers guarding? 

We find out soon enough.

We pass a house, an empty house, boarded up, like many of the houses. But this one has Jewish extremists actively occupying the house. They are out front, in a make shift tent. We learn they are new there, essentially squatting, and through their presence and tactics, they are claiming yet another house. 

There is a giant Israeli flag on top of the house and a sign expressing why the house belongs to them. Something having to due with biblical references that I can comprehend, I recognize the verses, but cannot for the life of me understand. 

Soon, Shai tells us, if they live there long enough, the Israeli army will expand its jurisdiction to include that house, to protect the Jews inside it. After all, this is the Israeli army’s job, to protect Israeli Jews. One house at a time, the occupation grows. 

We go to a park.

I should say it is the carcass of a park.

In the middle of it is one of the strangest and saddest sights I have ever seen.

Surrounded by weeds and brambles, the grave of Baruch Goldstein, a memorial. You remember Goldstein, fanatic and terrorist, was a Jew who, in his kippah, tzittzit, and army uniform, went into the grave of our ancestors, and slayed 29 Muslims while they were in prayer.

A person whose life can only be described as a dark cautionary tale, a source of our great shame.

And if that grave is not enough

It is inconceivable but I saw it with my own eyes, 

What I can only imagine as a Jewish extremist couple,

Has put an invitation to their upcoming wedding on top of his grave. 

It is hot outside. Very hot. 

Time stops as I try to take this in.

A Jewish wedding invitation for a dead Jewish terrorist in a ghost town filled with Israeli flags.

And at this moment, everything crystallizes for me: The hijacking of Jewish symbols, the decay of Jewish life, a hostile takeover.

These ideas and people are not just squatting in one apartment, they are inhabiting my Torah. 

They are residing in symbols that should represent hope, that must in these times represent hope, symbols that should represent the flourishing of justice, of miracles.

What is more hopeful than a wedding?

What generates more respect than a grave?

What is more honorable than a nation’s flag?

Except my symbols, our symbols, are being corrupted, degraded, whether we like it or not. 

With symbolism like this,

With the hijacking of symbols, the decay of symbols,

The use of symbols to bolster what I can only call the perversion of justice, the inversion of justice,

Why would you or I want them? Who needs it?

Maybe it is, as you say, better to leave Israel alone.

Leave the ugly Judaism to them.

Go back to a loose, ad hoc spiritual system that revolves around me and a few friends not hurting anybody. Very popular here. 

Leave God to those who would use zealotry and literally everything in their power in order to reside in those symbols -- 

Until there is no distinction anymore between 

their zealotry and Torah, 

zealotry and Israel, 

zealotry and God, 

zealotry and Graves. 

zealotry and Weddings. 

But I wonder, if we give all these things up, what’s left?

If we declare our allegiance only to what the extremists leave behind, we will find ourselves with an ersatz religion that has no moral claims.

After all, if we are decidedly uninvolved, if we are not willing to even speak or be informed, if we give over all the symbols to the extremists and zealots, 

We have then essentially cut ourselves out of the discussion

And thus have no claim, no stake in Israel or Israel / Palestine, 

Or by extension, the future of Jewish life. 

And make no mistake, if we give all this up, we will watch the decay spread, from Hevron to other places, it already has, to other occupied homes, soon to be occupied towns, the ideas of ethnic dominance and abuse of power taking root right here in the good old Jewish community of America. Tell me you haven’t already seen a few domestic warning signs. Tell me you are not cringing when Jewish philanthropy cozies up to Trump and his supporters. No, Hevron is an extreme but it is on a continuum that has a lot to do with you and I and our future.  

“Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakkeneh would pray when he entered the House of Study, ‘May no harm come from my teaching, may I not falter in matters of giving legal advice.’ 

[because] failure… is [always]’ a possibility. 

[In fact we learn] …all paths should be presumed to carry danger. 

There is no path forward that is not without crookedness or ambushes. [3]

We’ve been selling easy Judaism for so long in this country we’re somehow surprised when this all becomes life threatening, complicated, implicating. But, there is no [real] path forward that is not without crookedness or ambushes

[The text continues] Some say, ‘What do I need this trouble for? I will watch my step and not sin, and I will have saved my soul.” But the sages teach that the ones who [blaze a path] light lamps in public, they are the ones who receive yeshuah / they are the ones who bring salvation. [4] [This refers to] the ones who light the lamps.” [5]

Not only that, I can’t get Shai’s face out of my head. 

As much as it is an incredibly hot day and I recoil from almost everything I am seeing, from the reality that this is my problem

His courage is keeping us steady

And in the end I cannot bear the thought of leaving him to do this alone. 

2. New Coordinates 

Many people know: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, z”l, their memories should be a blessing, in Selma, for civil rights.

Not as many people know that even before that day Heschel had been placed on an FBI list of citizens to track for his growing reputation as a troublemaker. [6] Many don’t remember that only weeks before this march, John Lewis had led six hundred activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama river to fight Alabama’s resistance against black voting. Later named, “Bloody Sunday,” that march was met with officers who used tear gas, attack dogs and bully clubs, beating the nonviolent protestors. Fifty people were hospitalized. [7]

This may be why Heschel’s wife and daughter feared for his safety and when he left, as they said goodbye, I have been told they were not at all sure they would see him again. 

There was a service before the march. 

They prayed with their mouths

Heschel opened that service by reading a part of Psalm 27. [8]

The Lord is my light and my help, whom shall I fear? [9]

See, Heschel could not have gone on this march without fear.

Protesters were being attacked, some killed. And while the march was protected by some 1,800 members of the National Guard, nothing in that time was certain. 

See, Heschel could not have gone on this march without fear. But notice what Heschel, a Talmud prodigy, poet, textual virtuoso

chose to offer as his prayer:

Adonai ori v’yeeshi / mimi ira? 

The Lord is my light and my help, whom should I fear?

Heschel looks at the situation in the country, the grave injustices,

And recognizes that to be afraid of the billy clubs or of being on the FBI watch list, to be afraid of the Jewish Southern Establishment, which did not appreciate his views and activism, or to be afraid of harming his career – because none of this was playing particularly well at the seminary where he taught and worked - to be afraid of these would be to be afraid of the wrong things. 

In fact, with this Psalm Heschel taught, 

Yes, the plain reading of the Psalm – “God is my light and strength, I don’t need to fear because God is with me.” 

But remember this is a person who lost almost his entire family, his entire young adult community, his teachers, his peers in the shoah.

He knows death, he knows risk, and although he loves God with all his heart, he also knows the limits of divine protection. He does not believe in divine guarantees, he does not believe in divine insurance --

So the reason Heschel chooses this psalm is not to teach that God will protect us no matter what. No, the reason he chooses, “What should I fear?” is because he wants us to know that the real thing to fear is a world where righteousness is absent.

A world where there is no justice.

What should I fear? A world where righteousness is in exile. A country where the symbols and systems of the country: the flag, the vote, the police are no longer markers for justice and equality but instead inverted to protect the powerful, to protect the ruling class. 

Does this sound familiar?

What should I fear? The opposite of righteousness, righteousness in exile. 

The reality of this injustice frightens Heschel so much, he leaves his wife and daughter and gets on a plane. 

This Kol Nidrei, “What shall I fear?” also becomes our critical question, our life-guiding question. 

Because asking it may help us understand just what is at stake now: 

Whether we will move towards the possibility of righteousness or succumb to the forces of oppression. 

3. Galileo / New Map  

In a chapter so famous in history it has taken on mythic status, (not to mention an Indigo Girls reference), Galileo publishes his (Starry Messenger) in 1610, describing the surprising observations that he had made with the new telescope, namely the phases of Venus and the Galilean moons of Jupiter. 

With these observations he promoted the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, and claimed that the earth is not at the center of the universe, rather, that our planet rotates around the sun. 

As you probably remember, Galileo's initial discoveries were met with opposition within the Catholic Church, and in 1616 the Inquisition declared heliocentrism to be formally heretical, and eventually Galileo was put under house arrest for the remainder of his life. [10]

But, here’s the thing:

Not only was Galileo astronomically right, I think (ironically) he was religiously right, spiritually right. 

In fact, I think our current religious maps have not even caught up with even the sophistication of those old medieval astrological maps.

Let me explain: Just as many people assumed in the 1600’s that our planet was in the center and the sun revolved around us, I think that many of us today, maybe by default, assume we are at the center of our spiritual universes, with others who orbit around us.

Plus maybe a friendly God concept floating around, sort of “Break glass in case of emergency” kind of thing,

A two-dimensional God we engage a few times a year when we need a parking space or something. 

But just like that astronomical map with us in the center wasn’t right hundreds of years ago, 

This religious map isn’t right for us now.

For one, it is literally self-centered, inhibiting our ability to see, disorienting us.

Not only does it cut us off from each other,

If we are each our own suns, it follows that we are the ultimate reason for our own spiritual activity,

after all, everything revolves around us,

And this makes us spiritually thin, anemic.

Because if we are the beginning and end of the picture, we by necessity short-circuit any possibility of real sacrifice or connection to something greater than us.

And so great risk out of the question,

Because those risks have to first align with our own needs, our current perception of things,

And great risks rarely align with our own needs, they rarely fit into our existing perception of things.   

In fact, the idea we should each make up our own commandments, frame the problems and solve them as suits each of us seems kind of childish, too trivial a response for what faces us collectively now on many fronts, the planet, politics, to many to name.

And it may be that our societies will not begin to heal until we understand our proper place on the map.

What I suggest tonight, in keeping with Torah (I definitely did not make this up) is nothing less than a different set of coordinates, a rearranging of our spiritual solar system. [11]

Perhaps we are not at the center after all, not even of our personal, religious maps.

Perhaps God is at the center.

And if the idea of God at the center of your spiritual religious world makes you want to run screaming from the room – we can also name this center “the call + demand for a righteous world.”

I personally find it is hard to cozy up to an abstract idea when I am confused about what to do or in pain, but it’s Kol Nidrei, so for once I’ll be flexible. 

So God / Call to Righteousness is at the center, and there is only one planet that’s orbiting, a planet marked “Us.” 

“Us.” 

You see, immediately, this model changes two things, it helps in two ways:

(1) Us 

First, each of us is not solely responsible for fixing the world nor for creating global solutions singlehandedly. Silicon Valley, are you listening? 

Heschel did not start his own civil rights march nor project, nor did he self publish a magazine, he joined the people who were already working and did what they told him to do

In fact, the enduring test is not regarding each of us at all but whether we can understand that whatever we do, we have been and will be stuck together. 

Not only that, this shared responsibility for the world is also shared over time. This means that we are the recipients of the efforts of the people who came before us. And this means we might not see the fruits of our labor in our lifetimes. This means we think in generational terms, we rotate in generational orbits. 

(2) God is the Sun   

The second difference is that rather than “Me” in the center, the beginning and end of every story, Now God / the call to righteousness is literally what holds us together, this is the gravitational pull, this is what we turn ourselves towards, personally and communally.

So now we make decisions -- not on what suits us or even what makes us feel brave or worthy or known -- but simply on whether or not our next act can sufficiently respond to the call for righteousness. 


Case Study: Egypt

So, for example, on our way out of Egypt, away from Pharaoh and oppression, when we were crossing the sea, 

The rabbis teach that we said the very same line from the psalms 

that Heschel prayed in services before he marched with King. [12]

Adonai ori v’yeeshi / mimi ira? 

The Lord is my light and my help, who should I fear?

Why do the rabbis put this same Psalm in our mouths as we cross the sea? 

I think it is because the question of, “Who / what should I fear?” helps us to get real clear, real fast about what’s at stake in the different maps, different ways of seeing the world:

See if I am in the center, my needs, if my life is ultimate

And I am crossing the sea and I only get one fear 

Maybe I choose the fear of Pharaoh, 

In this system (where I am in the middle) this is understandable, even laudable! 

After all, Pharaoh has a lot of weapons and soldiers I don’t want to die. 

Maybe I even turn around and volunteer to go back to Egypt.

But if we imagine that we are in the kind of religious solar system I am advancing tonight, 

We understand that we never cross the sea only for ourselves, and not even for all those who cross with us 

Instead, we cross so that possibility of righteousness can remain in the world.

We cross to refract more divine light.

We cross so that our lives can be evidence of the existence of that great light. [13]

The rabbis teach: There is no [real] path forward that is not without crookedness or ambushes

Some say, ‘What do I need this trouble for? I will watch my step and not sin, and I will have saved my soul.” But the sages teach that the ones who [blaze a path] light lamps for the multitudes, they are the ones who receive yeshuah / they are the ones who bring salvation. [14] [This refers to] the ones who light the lamps.” [15]

4. Repair of Symbols / Light the Lights 

I am sorry to say that last summer, a few days after we were in Israel, 

The leaders of Breaking the Silence were detained while giving a tour in Hebron, they were questioned by the border police. Harassed. Their tour was shut down for some time. [16]

One light extinguished.

Then, a local gallery that had operated out of a municipal building for 13 years hosted Breaking the Silence, was brought to court and as a result lost its lease. Mayor Nir Barkat did not conceal his politics: “We will not allow city property to be invaded and used to insult Israeli soldiers and the state.” 

A second light out. 

Around the same time Education Minister Naftali Bennett used his authority and the Knesset passed a law aimed at keeping the stories and people of Breaking the Silence out of Israeli schools. [17]

A third light, extinguished.

Then Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence suffered physical assault while giving a tour in Hevron, he is punched in the mouth, his face bloodied by a Jewish right wing extremist. [18]

A fourth light, out. 

And in this week’s news another home in the occupied territories has been claimed, leveled, the village of Khan Al-Ahmar destroyed. [19]

A fifth light. 

The lights are extinguished, one by one by one.

And we are Heschel deciding whether or not to get on the plane.

And we are in the sea deciding to go back to Egypt or to try to cross.

If we get involved, we see it so clearly, the suffering that awaits us.

The personal repercussions, 

The invariably messy consequences, 

The possibility of being publically disparaged, slighted, dismissed,    

The despair of knowing we probably won’t even win this round or anytime soon.

But tonight, while we list of all these real fears, 

Let us also remember we have a greater fear, our most valuable fear,

It is our inheritance, it is our prize, it is who we are. 

We fear oppression in the world, especially, in our Israel, in our gates.

We shudder to think that our symbols and our language and our inheritance and our stories and our loved ones are increasingly intertwined with oppression.  

We fear more and more lights going out all around us.

We mustn’t lose this fear nor its corollary, an unrelenting commitment to doing what is just, no matter the cost.  

Perhaps this great fear will grant us the conviction and courage of some of our Israeli activist counterparts to turn towards righteousness,

To risk what is necessary to ensure this oppression does not continue to grow,

And maybe we can draw courage from each other and the holy one, the center of all the maps, the very source of righteousness 

The one who gives us life, who sustains us, and who commands us 

To make sure the lights don’t go out,

To light the lights,

To keep lighting the lights. 


[1] See https://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/about/organization

[2] Chemi Shalev, “To Whitewash Occupation, Netanyahu Crew Casts Breaking the Silence Whistle-blower as Bogeyman,” Haaretz, November 21, 2017.

[3] See note 5.

[4] Ps. 50:23.

[5] This is taken from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s treatment of these verses in Heavenly Torah. Gordon Tucker, Trans., Ed. (Continuum, New York, London, 2005), p.718-9. See also BT Berakhot 28 b, Leviticus Rabbah 9:2.

[6] Edward Kaplan, Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007), p. 221.

[7] See: Blackpast.org. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/bloody-sunday-selma-alabama-march-7-1965.

[8] Op. cit., p. 222-3. Note that Heschel was originally going to read a different Psalm but changed his mind when he got there, see Note 22, p. 434.

[9] Psalm 27:1.

[10] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_affair

[11] This is a traditional theology and one Heschel translates again and again in his work. I have been heavily influenced by the biographies of Heschel by Edward Kaplan (see above) where emphasizes Heschel’s insistence on a living God, as well as his belief that, “Maybe ideas can help us now.”

[12] Midrash Tanchuma, Tezaveh, 4:4.

[13] Heschel points out how in BT Hagigah 16a God gave the multitude a sign by which God could be recognized (See Heavenly Torah, p. 284). But I was thinking that if we needed a sign, this meant God could not be instantly recognized. I think the “sign” is actually our willingness to cross, to have faith that our actions are connected to a greater light.  

[14] Psalm 50:23.

[15] Op. cit., Heavenly Torah, p. 719.

[16] These and the next two examples from Haaretz Editorial, “Defend Breaking the Silence,” September 2, 2018. https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/defend-breaking-the-silence-1.6434494

[17] Haaretz Editorial, “Defend Breaking the Silence,” September 2, 2018. https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/defend-breaking-the-silence-1.6434494

[18] Times of Israel, “Right Wing Activist arrested for punching Breaking the Silence Guide in Hebron.” Jacob Magid, July 29, 2018.

[19] The Forward, “Soon I Will Watch Israel Destroy My Home,” Eid Khamis, September 14, 2018. https://forward.com/opinion/410311/soon-i-will-watch-israel-destroy-my-home/

Life, Re-inscribed

*re-recorded due to tech issue

R. Jessica Kate Meyer // Rosh Hashanah, 5779

We stand tonight on the cusp of the New Year.

The sound of the shofar, the taste of honey on fresh baked challah. The day of Remembrance--Yom HaZikaron.

Do you remember where you were this time last year?  Take a moment. How are you different? How are you not different?  Who has arrived in your life this past year. And who is no longer here?

On New Years around the world, we drink and dance until we forget.  But on Rosh Hashanah, we’re here to remember. To remember the melodies in our bones.  To remember the words many of us have forgotten. To remember the soul behind all of the distraction.  To remember our mortality. And we take an unflinching look at who we have been this past year. Where we have shown up, and where we have stumbled.  We pray: ‘Inscribe us for life.’

We imagine a book of life, a giant ledger of names and we ask—please, may ours find its way inside.  But what’s really going on when we pray ‘Inscribe us for life’? 19th century Hasidic Rebbe, the Sefat Emet, says that each one of us has a Divine point, a nekudah kedusha inside.  And on this point—is inscribed the word ‘life’. Like the 10 commandments etched on the luhot--the tablets, you and me, we have LIFE written here.  During the year, as we mess up, we don’t fess up, we make excuses for ourselves, we hurt each other--and this inscription on our heart, this beautiful, beaming life gets covered up with detritus -- like a buildup of plaque in our arteries or on our teeth. Our ‘life’ gets clogged. When we arrive in our seat here tonight at the JCC, our inscriptions are faded.  And our job over the next 10 days is to lift our tools--chisel and stone, voice, heart, prayer, to re-etch, to scrape out the plaque, and re-emblazon life, bold and insistent, into our hearts. It’s not Inscribe us for life, but Inscribe life in us.   

This New Year, there is more darkness than usual casting shadows over life.  Fear for our country; Fear of a deeply unstable government, of checks and balances checked out and out of balance; the future of our highest court of law hanging in the balance.  

In a year like this, we need to call up our strongest tools, the big guns.  I’m talking about our nigunim, melody, poetry, prayer, stories, questions...this is the most potent stuff we have to fortify ourselves — and to face this new year with courage, hope, and life.  Right now, I’m thinking about one prayer in particular.

My great grandmother Jenny for whom I was named, never went to shul, didn’t speak a lick of Hebrew, but you better believe she was there for Avinu Malkeinu in the women’s section on the High Holy Days.  The rhythmic, pleading language and haunting melody have become, for many Jews, the symbol of the Yamim Nora'im.

The first line of the melody hovers within four notes of the scale, repeating over and over [sing nigun].  This repetition creates a space intimate enough to address G-d as אבינו, as a loving parent. We then demand of God עשה עמנו, Be loving to us, and the nigun opens up, reaching to the sixth of the scale.  When davvened through a whole community, this creates a sonic grandeur fit for God as Malkeinu, our King. As we plead for צדקה וחסד one final time— we climb a little higher—reaching toward God [nigun], and then we crawl back down the scale [nigun], returning to the intimacy of אבינו. Through this nigun, the soul of the prayer is illuminated.  

But where does Avinu Malkeinu come from?  Who wrote it? It just so happens, that the origin of this prayer is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Taanit.  

In the time of R. Eliezer, a devastating drought tore through the land.  Plants withered on the vine. Sheep dropped in the flock. Hundreds died from thirst.  It was a national state of emergency.

“Teshuva!” commanded R. Eliezer—“only complete, full teshuva will awaken Divine compassion!  And Divine compassion will bring the rain from heaven. R. Eliezer instated a week-long fast so that each and every Jew would make vidui, confess her sins, and return in full teshuva to her creator.

Every Jew abstained a full week from food and drink.  To be honest, there wasn’t much to eat or drink anyway…but truly, everyone followed R. Eliezer’s command to a ‘t’.

After a full 7 days without food, without drink, without bathing, we lifted our eyes expectantly to the heavens…but only the cruel, unblinking sun stared back.

It was time for more desperate measures.  The fast didn’t work. We needed a different mode of action.

“Tefilah!  Prayer!” commanded R. Eliezer—“only prayer will awaken God’s mercy in heaven, and God’s mercy in heaven will bring the rain from heaven!”  

So R. Eliezer convened everyone for an emergency outdoor mid-day prayer service. Thousands of Jews, hungry, grumpy, and sweaty, packed together under the glaring sun.  

R. Eliezer ben Hurkanus hushed the crowd.  He descended with measured steps to face the aron hakodesh—the holy ark.  With much gravitas, he raised his voice, and began to pray…

We stood almost noiselessly while R. Eliezer recited the special 24 verse amidah of a fast day.  Why the extra 6 verses of the amidah? So that every Jew might turn in teshuva, the teshuva that will awaken God’s compassion, the teshuva that will bring the rain.

As R. Eliezer uttered the final word of the final beracha of the 24 blessings, an expectant silence.  Everyone lifted their eyes toward the heavens…but not one cloud in the sky. Only sun, and heat, and death.

Suddenly, from amidst the crowd, R. Akiva, student of R. Eliezer burst through, ran down and threw himself before the ark.  From the depths of his despair he cries out: Avinu Malkeinu!

Rain, rain pours down, rain from the heavens, wet, and good, quenches the dry people, feeds the cracked earth, and soaks R. Akiva, who stands trembling before the ark.

This beloved prayer, which is such an institutionalized part of the High Holy Day services, burst out of R Akiva as a cry from the most broken place.  He teaches us how to pray these hagim, he teaches us what it is to daven together in a time of crisis. Yes--There are prescribed prayers (including Avinu Malkeinu).  These are crucial. But the rain won’t come until we open our hearts and let it out.

For centuries after R’ Akiva uttered these words, Jewish communities around the world added their own pleas, unique to their community, generation, time.  So there was a living chain from R Akiva to each subsequent generation. What Avinu Malkeinus will we add from San Francisco in 2018?

The story of R Akiva and the rain ends with a curious coda:  It’s a few weeks later, the fields have turned from brown to green again.  And the rabbis sit around a table in the beit midrash, completely stumped: why did God respond to R Akiva and not to R Eliezer?  What made one more successful at intervening than the other? Amazingly, they get a communique! A bat kol, an echo of the Divine Voice says: It’s not that Rabbi Akiva is greater than R Eliezer. It’s that R Akiva ma’avir al midotav.  This phrase is a bit tricky to accurately translate.  Rashi interprets it as: ‘Rabbi Akiva has a forgiving nature, while R Eliezer does not.’  In other words, the skies opened with compassion for the one who carries compassion for others.  

A more literal translation of ma’avir al midotav might be:   one who surpasses his attributes, or rather goes beyond his limits  It rained for the one who transcended himself. In a time of crisis, the one who brought rain, was the one who went beyond his understanding of himself.  He stepped out of comfort zone.

For many of us, particularly those born in the US after WWII, born after the Vietnam War, we are facing in real time something we have never seen, and are not prepared for.

As we leave 5778, and step into the current of 5779, are we prepared to go beyond what we have been in the past, beyond our definitions of self?

At its core, RH, and the 10 days are a time of possibility--Hayom Harat Olam, on this day, our world is created, conceived.  We are the ones planting seeds.

I want to bless us to take our tools in hand and in heart over the days of Awe.  To remember why we’re here. To chisel away at what is concealing the life inscribed within us.  To go beyond ourselves, and to make the rain fall.

You are My Strangers / Market Forces

R. Noa Kushner // Rosh Hashanah, 5779

The Busy Man’s Prayer 

The Baal Shem Tov said:

“Imagine a man whose business hounds him through many streets and across the market-place the live long day. He almost forgets that there is a Maker of the world. Only when the time for the Afternoon prayer comes, does he remember: ‘I must pray.’ And then, from the bottom of his heart, he heaves a sigh of regret that he has spent the day on vain and idle matters, and runs into a by-street and stands there, and prays. God holds him dear, very dear and his prayer pierces the heavens. 

And he doesn’t feel so strange any longer.


Strangers

The command to take care of, even love the stranger / גר famously is all over  Torah: Love the stranger because you were a stranger, protect the stranger. Torah takes this seriously enough to repeat it again and again. 

And we learn we should love the stranger because we were strangers in Egypt. And this love is defined and redefined in specific, legal terms: You cannot cheat the stranger. You must act justly in business, regarding weights and measures, and in the courts.

Not only that, the treatment of the stranger is defined in ritual terms: The stranger keeps Shabbat just like us. The stranger sits in our sukkah and eats at our Passover table.

The stranger even listens to our same teachings. By the end of it, the stranger does not seem so strange any longer, more like family. 

It’s as if the tradition knows that someone who is different, living amongst the majority, immediately sets up a vulnerability, an instability. If there are problems in the society it’s not hard to figure out who could get penalized first. So the system works to correct for that by being overly explicit. We are not to exploit those vulnerabilities, we are to honor them as one of us. Otherwise, the whole society starts to fall apart. 


Lavan’s House  

So I was interested to find one of only places in Torah where a person uses this same root גר / stranger but not in a communal, categorical sense, 

But rather in a personal sense, in a story, hidden in a verb. 

Let me set this up. Jacob, grandson of Abraham and Sarah, son of Rebecca and Isaac, is describing his time living in his father-in-law Lavan’s house and says, Im Lavan garti v’echar ad atah / Some translations will say, “I sojourned with Lavan, and stayed there until now.”

But if you hear the word גרתי (gar-ti) / it has the same root as גר (ger) “stranger.” 

I was an outsider with my father-in-law.

I wasn’t home. 

I did not have say, original rights. 

I strangered there.

Maybe even: I was estranged. 

Why does Jacob use this unusual word to describe the twenty years he spent with his own father-in-law? How does he get there to begin with? 

I’m glad you asked.

Back in Jacob’s early life, Jacob has run from his older twin, Esau. Why? Because Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and now his blessing so Esau is furious, and threatens Jacob. So (remember?) Jacob flees for his life and goes to live his uncle Lavan.

On the way there, Jacob meets Lavan’s daughter, Rachel, and falls instantly in love. He kisses her and weeps. So far so good.

But, according to the rabbis, a peculiar thing happens as Jacob enters the house of Lavan. By the way, Lavan in English means, “White.” So we could also easily call the house of Lavan, the “White House.” Just something to keep in mind.  

An odd thing happens as Jacob enters the house of Lavan. Rather than greeting Jacob warmly, or expressing joy over a future son-in-law, or an expanding family, the rabbis teach that Lavan first and foremost, only looked for Jacob’s money.

“He looked for other camels or riches, then, when they wasn’t there, he thought there must be gold coins in Jacob’s saddlebags. When those were missing, when the two men kissed hello, Lavan searched for pearls in Jacob’s mouth.” 

When nothing is found (!), according to the rabbis Lavan says, “Really, there’s no reason for me to take you in, since you didn’t bring me anything. But since we’re family, you can stay a few weeks.” (and a bit later on) “Better you than an outsider.”

Immediately, one rule of this White House becomes clear: If you are wealthy, if you have something material and obvious to offer, all well and good. But if you are just a person, just a human being, even a future son-in-law, you have no inherent worth. You are valueless until proven otherwise. 

After the few weeks are over, they make an arrangement. Since he has no bride price, Jacob will work for Lavan for seven years, then marry Rachel. 

But, as many of you know, after the seven years, although Lavan throws a big communal wedding feast for Jacob, at the last minute, on the wedding night, Lavan blows out all the candles and puts his firstborn daughter Leah in place of her younger sister Rachel.

The callousness boggles the mind. 

What kind of a father does this to his daughters? To his future son-in-law?

How could Rachel agree to this?

How could Leah?

In fact we don’t see any reaction at all from the sisters. And this could be Torah being, well, patriarchal (wouldn’t be the first time). But there are places where women speak up in Torah and I think this is a clue to something else. 

I suggest the silence of Rachel and Leah is because the culture in the white house is like a closed circuit of anxiety, a place where one’s worth is constantly in question, where an existential mistrust in each other is normal, where power and status are the only things that matter, where basic rules of ethical and social behavior are twisted in order to accommodate Lavan and his need for power. And so they are quiet, afraid to acknowledge the depravity of the situation lest Lavan shame them further, lest they lose even more status.  

In this White House, it seems everyone is a commodity, nothing more. 

And notice, when Jacob confronts Lavan, saying, 

“What have you done to me?! Why did you lie to me?!” Lavan doesn’t even flinch. He only answers: “In our community, we honor the firstborn.”

First of all, you’d think in seven years, he coulda found a way to bring that up, hm? Second, we see how Lavan manipulates Jacob with this remark, hinting at how Jacob, earlier in his life, stole the honor from his older brother. As if bringing up Jacob’s past mistakes -- whether or not they are relevant to the moment at hand -- evens the score, notice the bully tactics.

Notice also, how by saying, “In our community, we honor the firstborn,” that Lavan also deflects any personal responsibility (a theme) while emphasizing Jacob’s difference. “You didn’t know? Everyone knows these rules…” Lavan hides behind the “we” -- making no apologies, not even acknowledging anyone else’s pain. 

See, in Lavan’s house, in the white house, what I think of as a house of mirrors, no one ever has enough security to be at rest, no one can rely on being treated with dignity. This is why, the description of Jacob’s time there is filled with constant competitions, a vying for status – Rachel and Leah over Jacob, over the number of sons they can deliver, Jacob and Lavan trying to outwit each other over sheep. You can practically feel the anxiety in every verse. 

Because if you are only as good as what you produced that day, or whether you won or lost the latest power struggle, if the rules change all the time, much of life becomes about avoiding shame.  

This goes on for twenty years. 


Estranged  

Now we understand why Jacob uses this word, גרתי / I was an alien, I was not at home, even for a place where he lived for so long and did so much.

It is as if he is saying, I saw and I got sucked into and I participated, willingly and unwillingly, in dealings that were not mine, and in treating myself and people like things and worst of all, no one said it was wrong. I was estranged from myself.  

Now we understand, we see how dangerous it is, we feel the spiritual implications of living in this kind of place. 

Now we understand, we see, the crux of what Torah means when it says, 

be careful of how you treat the stranger, 

don’t ever again create a society like in the house of Lavan, 

like it was in Pharaoh’s Egypt, 

where people are things, 

where status and production is idolized, 

and everything else -- morality, honesty -- is twisted in its service, 

where the strong are given free reign to be abusive and the weak are invisible, 

where it seems there is no other choice but to participate, 

where everyone is one step away from being proven worthless, 

or proving each other as worthless. 

Now we understand Torah’s obsession with making sure it never gets that bad again. God forbid, says Torah, that you would be a part of helping such a system to thrive ever again. 



Masters of our House

But here we are. And, what can I say, what we have now is not so different from what I just described, the very thing Torah warns us against over and over. 

And, as much as it might feel good, and as much as Trump has, in an unprecedented way, accelerated a culture of shame and mistrust -- 

As much as Trump has used the equivalent of verbal gasoline to whip up fires of fear and hatred, each one seeming to blaze in 1000 different directions —

We can’t just blame Trump for our current situation. We can’t just blame Trump. For, if we all live in this house of mirrors, feeling not unlike those in Lavan’s white house, wondering what happened to our country’s dignity and morality and values, we also have to admit we have helped to build this house, this system.

It’s our house after all. And we could not be where we are as a country without our tacit approval along the way. 

You see, just like Jacob, who ran from his brother, ran from what he stole,

-- rather than return it or stick around to try and fix things -- those of us with privilege and power in this country, many of us in this room, have stolen some things. Anyone who was with us in Montgomery and went to the Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration knows what I am talking about. 

Those of us with privilege and power in this country have also run from some things. We, too, forgot to notice that what we’ve been doing is wrong, that some of our success has come on the backs of others. 

Now we find, that the fantasy that we could be completely moral and upright, 

That we could claim we are doing the right thing while abdicating our communal responsibilities, 

while being largely absent in the election of politicians and local agendas, while neglecting to hold our portion of civic weight, 

while quietly and steadily refusing to share what we have beyond our own families -- let alone work to shine the light or try to change systemic inequalities, 

or even tell ourselves the truth about how unequal it has become, 

how our daily choices, our schools, our neighborhoods, our legal system, the way we spend,

how it is our choices that contribute to and bolster that inequality --

Now we find, as we assess the state of our country, among many things, that particular fantasy that we could be moral while absent has come crashing down.


Commodification

And, beyond our complacency or even our complicity, there’s another reason we find ourselves in this moment.

The second reason we’re in this White House is that in ways large and small

we have reinforced the narrative of Lavan. Namely, that power and economic status is God, and everything else, all resources -- moral, emotional, social -- can and should be subservient, to that God, to that ultimate status. We might be upset with where someone is on the economic ladder, how someone is treated, but we rarely talk about using a different ladder, another measure altogether. 

No matter how many radical T-shirts we wear, many of us work as if personal economic failure is almost tantamount to self-destruction. We work as if economic status is the sole determinant of whether a person belongs and how they are treated by others, as if people who are poor simply do not exist. I am not making it up. Go and spend a day at GLIDE, take the tour of the Tenderloin, walking distance from here, and go see for yourself. Then go up the street to the areas where you usually go to, witness the contrast, and you tell me with a straight face that everyone is created equal, everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity and we as a city or a country (one of the richest in any time, any place) are at all serious about making that justice a priority. 

Because I am not seeing it.

And it has been like this a long time, long before the current president. 

Because if this is our house, we must realize that, no matter what we’ve been telling ourselves, the actual way we live in the world set the stage for such a house, such a leader. Because before he ever showed up, we had already conveniently replaced real activism and sacrifice with laps for status, and buzz words and told ourselves it was the same thing.  

So if we now live in the white house, the house of mirrors, every room filled with refracted narcissism and existential insecurity, we realize, at least on this point, Torah is right. It is impossible to classify another group as strangers, to live as if poorer people deserve different rights, a different life altogether, and then still expect to remain at home with ourselves. 


Money

[R. Abraham Joshua] Heschel quotes the social and economic historian, R. H. Tawney, an authority on the close relationship between religious ideologies and economic growth in the 1920’s. He wrote:

“…Society will not solve the particular problems of industry which afflicts it, until that poison is expelled, and it has learned to see industry in the right perspective. If it is to do that, it must rearrange its scale of values. It must regard economic interests as one element in life, not as the whole of life.” 

We exist in a moment in this country where everything is commodified -- people, time, art, weddings, nature, relationships, self awareness – many things that could never be measured at all, let alone in terms of financial gains or losses. No matter how ineffable or complex or profound, everything is forced through the same mental sieve. And this is so common, so American, we don’t even notice it. 

“That is a beautiful idea, but does it scale?” “Good thought to accept those folks, but what is the bottom line?” No matter if it is medicine or religion or art, we lean on money to quickly demonstrate or assess whether something is worth our attention or effort. 

But, many aspects of life, certainly religious experiences and ideas, cannot be understood through an economic lens, only misunderstood. It would be like looking at a poem under a microscope. It doesn’t matter how pure our intent is -- we just won’t get it. And the minute we try, we’ve already lost. 


Immigration

For an example, in a purely economic reality, making sure there are no strangers who come into the United States, foreigners who might deplete our resources, going after people who somehow manage to sneak in --

from a purely economic perspective – this still may be something worth arguing against (we are a country built on waves of immigrants, after all), but still, in the context of this conversation, the deporting of immigrants is a reasonable perspective to maintain. 

But when you leave the realm of economics, of measurable gains and losses, and consider the second grade girl who slept with a backpack on for six months because her father was deported in the middle of the night, and she was terrified they would come for her mother, and she did not want to be alone, we realize how seeing everything through a lens of money makes us blind to other worlds, other truths. 

We realize that the pain of this family cannot be measured in economic terms. We not only realize that the soul of this girl is infinite, but that her love of her father and mother is infinite, and the level of her estrangement, her now broken trust in the world is infinite. And we see just how limiting our economic blinders can be. 

Or maybe we should listen to the El Salvadorian woman who stayed with her six year old this year in a detention center. She wrote, “I was forced to flee my country because of violence and threats of violence against me and my family. 

…But after we crossed the border, we found no relief. Instead, we were held for two months in a family immigration detention center in Artesia, N.M., run by a for-profit company.

…When our children were sick, we waited days for medical attention. When one mother whose daughter had asthma informed the officers that her child needed medical care, she was told that she should have thought about that before she came to the United States. Another mother asked for medical assistance for her son but it never came. She was deported, and her son died just a few months later.”

Her son died in the United States this year -- not on a boat coming over in 1918, in a for-profit detention center in New Mexico, 2018. And we know now of other stories, children molested, hurt, and of course, the many separated from their parents.  

In fact, we could listen to fragments of letters from those very mothers separated from their children, this one for her seven year old son:

“When we’re together again, I will spoil you like always. I will cook your meals and we will go on walks and I’ll lie next to you until you fall asleep. I love you, my prince. I hope to God and the Virgin Mary, my child, that we will soon be together and we’ll never be separated again.” 

How do we measure the torment in that letter in dollars? How do we begin to measure the love? We cannot. These letters are like prayers. To classify them, to monetize them is to render them mute. And in insisting that this and all problems are disproportionately financial questions, we deny the truth in these letters, we deny a great many truths, and we are in danger of making strangers of us all, compromising our great country. 

In the house of mirrors we think that if we say “No,” or exhibit moral courage in our individual spheres, if we move away from the constant upkeep necessary to acquire status or make money, we worry -- like Jacob, Rachel and Leah caught in their destructive and competitive web for years and years -- we worry we will find ourselves alone, powerless, and irrelevant. 

So we climb and climb and try not to look too much at those beneath us, all the strangers, and tell ourselves that this is normal. But children who are ill and dying on our borders in for profit institutions should shake us all to our very core. Those we now know personally in the Tenderloin who cannot get a place to sleep night after night, year after year, should keep us up at night. Because This is not normal. This is not inevitable. There is another way. And allowing that very thought -- that it doesn’t have to be this way -- and returning to that thought again and again, refusing to rationalize our way out of it, this may allow us to be of real help.  


כאלו / As If

Many of you know the story of baby Moses. When Pharaoh has commanded all the boy babies be thrown into the Nile, Torah records no newspaper article, no demonstration. I believe that silence is one of the loudest, most painful sounds in our tradition. 

All Hebrew parents are commanded to drown their babies. Moshe’s mother, a stranger in a strange land, in an attempt to save him, puts him in a basket. Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya the princess, the epitome of power and privilege, 

Is out one day, bathing in the Nile. She sees the basket and opening it, hears the cry of the boy. And then the most unlikely thing happens: From the heart of Pharaoh’s palace, Batya decides she will raise this slave child (the rabbis say) כאלו / as if he were her own .

It is not a perfect act. I can already imagine Batya’s twitter feed: forced adoption of a helpless baby, why didn’t she save more than one baby, couldn’t she have done more to lobby Pharaoh, all true. 

And yet, the rabbis teach that she would kiss and hug and adore Moses כאלו / as if he were her own son.

I don’t know what the opposite is of treating someone like a stranger, but it seems to me that demonstrating this compassion and love must be a part of it. 

Seems to me this living כאלו / as if the world is a just place, where no children die in rivers or schools or for-profit jails for-profit detention centers must be a part of it. 

And it turns out, Torah teaches, this decision is enough. Just treating someone else as if he were part of her own family

just loving one stranger as if he were family, 

this stops one cycle of estrangement upon estrangement long enough 

to allow the possibility of freedom to live in the world again. 


*To get involved now, contact these Kitchen-ites:

  • Sue Reinhold, Board Member, Bend the Arc (house party this Sunday!), sue@wisdomhead.com

  • Abigail Trillin, Executive Director, Legal Services for Children, liaison to Faith in Action, abigailtrillin@gmail.com

  • Jodi Jahic, Board Member, Defy Ventures, program that creates opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, jodijahic@gmail.com

  • Jo Stein, Full Circle Fund, connects volunteers from all walks to Bay Area community organizations, johannabstein@gmail.com

Notes on speaking about Israel

R. Noa Kushner
Presented at JEN conference, Los Angeles
June 2018

I keep two ideas in my head when approaching talking about Israel / Palestine.

On the one hand, I have the words of (my father’s teacher and R. Lizzi’s rabbi) Arnold Jacob Wolf z”l: The worst thing someone can say to you after your teaching / drash is: “Nice teaching Rabbi.”

He would have preferred someone would be furious or at the very least, in disagreement – it would show they were considering an idea in a new way. He was a master truth teller and agitator.

On the other hand, I learned something from one of my rabbis, Les Bronstein. He was the rabbi at our wedding and was giving Michael and I pre-wedding counseling, general advice. He said, “There are two kinds of arguments: the kind that goes in circles, goes nowhere, and the kind that is l’shem shamayim / for the sake of heaven. It is good to learn how to identify which is which. Try to make the majority of your arguments l’shem shamayim.

In other words, from Rabbi Wolf: Don’t play for laughs. The Torah, certainly Israel, these are too serious and they deserves our most sincere efforts to try to say something serious, nuanced and real. His approach is the opposite of trying to be popular.

And then there’s Bronstein: Try to know which arguments you get sucked into for the sake of your ego, arguments that are almost guaranteed to go nowhere, versus those times when it is truly necessary to get in there and argue for a greater good, for the sake of heaven.  

We started The Kitchen 7 years ago this Shabbat. When I started, one of the realities I experienced was that most of the people I was trying to reach were not on different sides of a radical Israel divide, fighting about BDS or the UN resolutions.
Rather, they were not talking about Israel at all.
That is, they were confused and ashamed by what they read in the paper, they were largely illiterate when it came to the situation in Israel, the people whom they encountered on the topic seemed overly extreme, so they avoided the topic altogether.
It didn’t come up.
They were absent from the room.

Frankly, what frightens me the most is that I think had I refrained from bringing Israel up at The Kitchen, I think few to no one would have complained, and most would have been secretly relieved. Even now, there are people who ask me, “Why talk about Israel in shul? Let’s focus on the spiritual.” And while I understand that inclination, and I think it is an understandable position, I think in this time and place, I just can’t abide by it. There’s too much at stake. So I try to chose when and how to address Israel with care but we do talk about it.

In fact, I actually think shul is the best place to talk about Israel because even if we disagree, if the community is working, we are stuck with each other, and we can talk about the issues of the day in the context of Torah, we can argue about things over time. And if we know each other from a larger context, from Shabbat and being together at a shiva and celebrating Purim I think we have a chance at being decent with one another when we disagree.

In San Francisco, I knew that no amount of pro-Israel talking points would get more unconnected people connected. I had to start with offering an exposure to what I felt was the unvarnished truth and hope that the truth would at least help the people to understand that this was not a sell job, that Israel mattered so much to me that I was willing to make us all extremely uncomfortable in service of not just connecting them to Israel but engaging them in a larger role – the role of helping to shape the future of Israel and the larger Israeli – American conversation. I wanted them to understand: there is something real here, something real and worthwhile and, yes, difficult, and it has everything to do with you and your life.

So we brought the smartest, most compelling scholars and journalists, too many to list.

And I spoke, on Shabbat, from things I learned in Torah, I spoke in stark terms about the limiting danger of a survivalism that supersedes moral responsibility, I spoke about the occupation and the obligation of building a social democracy in our Jewish home. I spoke about this a lot, and each time I would sweat it out.

I did not mince words and we lost some nice people along the way, people who did not like hearing about Israel in shul. Or, they did not like hearing what I was saying.

At one point, we sent out a Kitchen email and a funder told us that if we used a certain word in our email again, we would lose $50K.

I am so out of it I thought the bad word was, “Palestine.” Turns out it is “Occupation.”

But you know, I have and will think very hard about using that word in an email again, that is how censorship works. These are the things I weigh: Is that word in that next email necessary for the sake of heaven? Or will it just be another log on the proverbial fire?

And: What good is money if we can’t tell the truth?

Overall, I think what we have done is working.
That is, first, we have Kitchen-ites who now regularly talk about Israel / Palestine, they come and hear the scholars and lectures, we went on a profound trip, we met a wide range of activists, artists, scholars. It was not a subsidized trip, and this time and money that the participants offered, this is a big deal, a big commitment. And these are people who I think really, truly would have not shown up in this conversation were it not for us bringing it up all the time in ways they could respect.

In the next seven years I think it is time to bring in more controversial views, which, for The Kitchen will mean a few speakers from the right.
After all, heaven demands more than one point of view.
And I am working to create a group of emerging leaders, here and in Israel, people who will apply and pay to learn in an intensive program concerning America and Israel with the aim of rising into leadership, and committing to work on a problem together.

Heaven demands, the ideas and problems are so serious they demand, our sincere efforts to try and know one another, here and in Israel, as we argue this one out.

And None Shall Be Afraid

Achrei Mot // Kedoshim 2018
Noa Kushner

I was in Alabama just two days ago, standing at the National Center for Peace and Justice
A memorial dedicated to the victims of white supremacy. 
We were just a few blocks away is The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

I was there with Michael and my three daughters and 85 people from The Kitchen and GLIDE, all of us in this holy, difficult, intensely painful place.

There is a lot to say, trust me, you will be hearing about this visit for a long time, 
And for those of you in The Kitchen, actually, why stop there, for anyone here, 
If I have anything to do with it, you will be going yourselves. 
But this Shabbat I wanted to share one small vantage point
This week when we read the portion of Kedoshim / holiness. 

I can’t really explain how brokenhearted we were by what we saw, read, learned, owned, relearned, and witnessed. 
And at the same time, even though there are parts of our country’s history that bring me deep shame
I still felt proud to be there among the people of many colors, many of us dressed for the occasion, thousands and thousands of pilgrims descending on Montgomery, 
Each of us looking at each other in the eye and greeting one another on the street as if to say, THIS moment marks the birth of the next chapter of the real America, we are building the future of this country right now. 

See there was an understanding among us that
If we started by acknowledging together what has happened, 
what still happens
If we started with truth
The truth could set us free, 
The truth would give us a quality of freedom we have never known.  

I kept thinking of the piece of the verse from Micah (4:3-4)

V’lo yilmadu od milchama / They will not learn war any more
V’yashvu eish tachat gafno / v’tachat t’einato
Each will sit under his vine and under her fig tree
V’ain machrid / And none shall be afraid

I realized there on the streets of Alabama
How corrosive and toxic racism is in almost every interaction we have
How we have been making each other afraid
How we tell one another we are colorblind here in San Francisco
While underneath, everyone one of us is sick with a kind of fear
Those with the privilege, sick with fear
And those targeted by racism, the people with heavy burdens, sick with fear
Those of us who pass but only with the constant concern we will be found out for who we are, sick with fear
Those of us who have no choice but to wear our race on our faces, sick with fear
We are sick from swimming in a river of mistrust and lies
We are sick from walking so carefully on this manicured lawn that we know is filled with pits and traps

We are uneasy and on guard the way a family that keeps a great and tragic secret is uneasy and on guard
We cannot fully exhale, we cannot stand tall.

I realized all this
Because when I walked on the streets of Montgomery
I saw in the people around me
And I felt in myself
Maybe for the first time in my life in America
No one, no one, was afraid 

V’ain machrid / Ain! None! And none shall make them afraid
V’ain machrid / And none shall be afraid
And I’m telling you, the air felt different.

Not because we were only with those just like us
Not because some were left out of the conversation
In our group alone we had a vast range of experiences and classes and backgrounds
As different on paper as different could be
But we were bound together easily with truth

We were bound together with our willingness to confront the truth, no matter how unspeakable it was or is:
The truth of 12 million slaves
The truth of 2 million who died in passage
The truth of hundreds and hundreds of years of families torn apart, legalized abuse
The truth of Emancipation without the tools for survival, without land to own
The truth of asking people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps when they don’t have boots
The truth of decades of Segregation / 
The truth of Jim Crow and the racial terror of almost 5,000 public lynchings
The truth of our current justice system that claims it is impartial but rewards or penalizes people for the color of one’s skin
The truth of Mass incarceration / of the 2.3 million incarcerated
The truth of an America that holds more prisoners than any other country in the world 

It was that truth and heartbreak upon heartbreak that bound us together
And yes, I am positive that people of color had wholly different experiences than I, 
I tried to take up just my amount of space and no more.

But I can tell you because I witnessed it in the eyes of everyone I met, 
Even the most cutting truths did not make us afraid
V’ain machrid / No one was making us afraid
We were not making each other afraid
We were not afraid of each other
We were not afraid

That is the power of telling a story, Lucy
That is power of telling the truth.
It allows us to leave at least one kind of fear behind.

You live in times of great choices, Lucy
Great and important things are being decided in our time
The story of our country is being rewritten
And different forces are all trying to grab the pen that will write it

So since I know you understand the power of words
The power of stories
I hope you will help to write the truth
I hope you will use your power and imagination and chesed / lovingkindness
(Oy, I never have a met such a pure chesed as the one that shines in you)
You must use that compassion and kindness to help us write the new story.
That is my blessing for you

And I want to leave you with a last image
Because you talked about putting a stumbling block before the blind
How our tradition and the rabbis see that command, 
How they teach that putting a stumbling block before the blind means a prohibition against any act that conceals or misinforms someone who would be hurt by that concealment.

And what I want to leave you with is that sometimes we put those blocks in front of our own eyes, don’t we?
Sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to see
That is what our trip to Alabama was about
An effort to remove those blocks, to peel away the blinders, to try and see

And the image I want to give you see is that
We, hundreds of faith leaders and believers were standing in the memorial
Early in the morning for an opening service

And that memorial remember, it is a place that remembers the many innocent who were victims of organized racial terror, lynchings
And there, there are these six foot, steel monuments, all boxes, hundreds of them, rows of rectangles which are inscribed with names of the victims, at least the names we know, and they are at eye level when you come in
But deeper inside, the ground slopes down so that those monuments are now hanging a few feet above our heads

With all the monuments, the deeper you go, 
there is not a lot of light, it is quiet and mostly dark in the center
So early in the morning there we were all pressed together in center there to hear clergy offer words
And prayers
And one leader spread out four powerful singers throughout the group
And they led us in Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now am found
Was blind but now I see

We sang it over and over
In this condensed group of people
I once was lost but now am found
I was blind but now I see
Over and over we sang, like angels, like a heavenly choir
I closed my eyes and felt the presence of the many
So that when the prayer ended and I opened my eyes again
The monuments still hung, the many names were still above my head
Names now permanently recorded in history and in my heart

And along with the names, between those names, I now also saw the slivers of sky
I also saw the eyes of the living, shining faces of the people around me as if for the first time
I took it all in and thought: I was blind but now I see. 

 

Standing From a Distance

Noa Kushner//Parashat Terumah 5778

I hate when it just so happens that the bar / bat mitzvah kids get the torah portion with the curses, the section in Torah where God warns us what it will be like when our society falls apart.
First of all the curses are graphic and theologically fraught.
It’s hard to explain a loving God in the face of all these horrible images.
And no serious religious person that I know believes in a God who would punish in these ways,
Or, frankly do I know anyone who believes that God that would dole out rewards like an animal trainer.
God just doesn’t work like that.
Just, it is not easy to explain all these layers to a 13 year old.
But I was thinking exactly of the curses this week after our shooting in Florida.
Not because I think God is cursing us, no, but because I think there have been so many shootings for so long,
that it is not a curse God sent us,
but one, I’m afraid, we are bringing on ourselves.

In devarim it says in this list of curses:
“Your sons and daughters will be given to another people
And your eyes will look and search everywhere for them all your days… (28:32).”

I think this is how many of us feel this Shabbat --
Another group of lost young people, “Our eyes will search for them all our days.”
But what turns it from a once-in-a-generational tragedy, to a curse that must be broken, is that we know
That this moment, this moment of sorrow and agony, will pass as it has before,
It will come and go, come and go, we’ve seen this many, many times now
And we will become consumed with the next thing.

And we realize,
It is hazy but we start to realize,
We’ve recovered from so many shootings in the schools and the offices and the movie theaters and the restaurants and parks and concerts and the schools, again the schools…


We realize not only how many times we’ve recovered, we realize just how we’ve recovered – namely, we’ve recovered by going back to business as usual
We have a well documented national pattern now of retreating into denial
It’s a chart on social media, it’s a meme.

So we begin to understand that as the violence happens again and again,
This week in a school, slain high school students
That we are not completely innocent, how can we be?
We realize that we have not done enough since the last time
since there is a this time
We realize that our children’s lives are being wasted
“Our eyes will search for them all our days.”

And, maybe it is just me but it seems that each time
The tragedy comes closer and closer to us.
Like a storm circling
Now it is someone’s cousin, now a girl from camp
Now a nice Jewish girl, now four nice Jewish kids
Could be one of ours, is close to being one of ours.

And I am afraid
I don’t want to be alive on the day when it touches us directly.
I don’t want to have to stand in front of you and speak knowing we could have done something more.
It is hard enough to live through the tragedies that were unavoidable, the accidents.
I don’t think I can live through it, I don’t want to do that funeral.
And the fear that I might have to is what causes me to speak so plainly tonight.

Maybe this moment in our country is what God was talking about in Torah in this section of curses that we read only in hushed whispers.
Maybe Torah is trying to teach us that society is fragile, a web, a delicate multilayered multifaceted ecosystem of creation
And without our vigilance and effort and constant building, without our work, without our faith in each other and our purpose here, it easily falls apart.

This is what I try to teach our bar / bat mitzvah students on this sections of Torah.
The underlying idea, the teaching of the section of curses
The reason it is in our Torah
Is to offer to us that what happens to us in our society is not predetermined,
See the curses are side by side with the blessings of safety, security, sanctuary and joy.
So while we do not get to decide everything in the world, far from it, 
It is up to us whether we take care of just ourselves or also each other. Torah is saying by articulating the very worst that the stakes are that high,
Things can get this bad or we can turn towards the best, towards light, see, we are not victims of circumstance, so much is up to us.

II. Miriam

In Torah, Miriam is one of the few who is called a Neviah / a prophet
And so the rabbis point out moments where Miriam surely demonstrated her prophetic prowess.
For example, they teach that when all the married couples refused to be together, refused to make new babies – because, with Pharaoh killing the babies, what was the point? --
Miriam, little Miriam, is said to have yelled at her parents that they were worse than Pharaoh. That they were doing Pharaoh’s job for him, that they needed to have faith and to make new life.
Precocious Miriam.

Then, not much later, according to the rabbis, Miriam prophesies that Moshe will be born and will redeem everyone. So when Moshe is indeed born and the whole house is filled with light and it is clear that Moshe will be extraordinary, Miriam’s father comes to kiss her on the head saying, “Your prophecy has been fulfilled.”
Miriam haneviah / Miriam the prophet.

But then, in the same midrash, only a lines later, we find Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, has to put her precious Moshe in a basket in the river Nile, risking his life. She’s worried Moshe won’t survive, of course she’s furious. And so the rabbis say that right before Yocheved puts Moshe in the Nile, she comes over to Miriam and hits her on the head, saying, “Where’s your prophecy now?” (Shemot Rabba 1:22)

I think about poor, vulnerable Miriam in that moment.
She got to bask in the glow of her optimism for months, her stubborn and fierce optimism
But now, in this moment, not knowing what will happen, she stands alone on the edge of the Nile
Watching as her brother floats away
The evidence is mounting
Her large role in what looks to be an inevitable tragedy is now undeniable
The sting of the smack from her mother on her head
She stands alone at the edge of the Nile.
She stands far off
VaTetatzav achoto me’rachok / she (his sister) stationed herself at a distance.
L’deah mah ye’aseh lo. / To know what would happen to him, to her brother.

We want to say in that moment to Miriam: “It looks horrible right now but what you have done, the risk, it is not for nothing. Don’t stand so far away. It’s not over yet.”

And then the rabbis suggest, they interpret, it is not only Miriam standing there but God.
That is, God is Miriam, stationed at a distance in that moment,
For if Miriam is feeling remorse and fear about her optimism and frightened by the depths of her vulnerability and the price of her prophecy,
If Miriam is feeling helpless and scared for trying
God, too, is at a distance,
Maybe also wondering if the price of trying for freedom in the world is too high
God is also, if not helpless, then is still, at a distance, not able to force a just outcome.

For in case it is not obvious yet, God is dependent on us.
If babies are thrown away it is up to us to save them, in Torah and now.
God can make the miracles in the world but cannot save us from each other.
So God herself waits by the river’s edge, is stationed there, from a distance, to hope and pray and see what we will do.

 

III.

Maybe like Miriam we cannot fathom how it came to be this way.
We remember a time, seems so recent, when the proverbial house was filled with light.
When it seemed the arc was bending towards moral justice.
When the idea of someone slaughtering others in a peaceful public space was inconceivable.
We are struck and confused, much like Miriam, wondering: How did we get so lost? How did this come to be?
Our head stings from the latest slap.
“Where is our prophecy now?”

But we cannot afford to stay locked and transfixed, we cannot afford to lose faith.
In our story, Miriam gets over her shock, actively waits to see who else might be there to help, she works with Pharaoh’s daughter, the most unlikely partner and is right there in the precise right moment to arrange for Moshe’s needs. To make sure he thrives and we become free. Now this is a prophet. Because a Jewish prophet is someone who makes her prophesy come true. Who shakes off her fear and wills her redemptive prophecy into being with sheer courage.

 

IV.

I don’t know if Miriam was waiting by the banks of the Nile in order to help all the other babies who were thrown in. (Maybe this is what makes the midwives so extraordinary, why they receive houses in their name, they helped even those they did not know.) But it seems that Miriam, like most of us, stood apart until it meant the life of her own brother.

Maybe what will help us to wake ourselves up, to overcome our self-imposed distance, is to think of these latest kids as ours.
Maybe we need to spend time knowing the seventeen students who were killed; maybe we need to carry them around on our backs, on our shoulders, as if we are their pallbearers.

Maybe we need to get closer to the details of their lives, until they become like our brothers and sisters, like our children. Maybe we need to know just for starters that Alyssa, was a champion debater, and an amazing soccer player. Can you picture her? Maybe we need to know that Nicholas was on a major upswing in his short life, just having been recruited by the University of Indianapolis for swimming. Imagine his butterfly. Maybe we need to inscribe on our hearts that Joaquin Oliver was a poet who filled up notebooks. What was his handwriting like? That Meadow Pollack was unstoppable and worked at her boyfriend’s family’s motorcycle repair business. Her grit. That Alex Schachter, who lost his mother at five, played the trombone in the marching band. What was his father’s face like when he heard the news? Maybe if we remember them as our brothers and sisters we will find the strength to wake ourselves up. To shake ourselves out of our stupor. We don’t have to live at a distance like this. Like Miriam, we can create a new prophecy. We don’t have to live cursed like this, this is a curse of only our time, it wasn’t always this way and through our voting and lobbying and demonstrating and fundraising, and giving, and refusing to stop until we make some progress, we can choose blessing instead.

 

V.

I sat next to a tzaddik at an event for Janice Mirikatani, one of the founders of GLIDE. For once, I am not being hyperbolic. This woman, GLIDE macher, Jewish by the way, raised nine immigrant children who were in danger of being deported, starting in the 1960’s. Her husband, across the table, held up nine shaky fingers to emphasize the number of their kids to me. They gave them education and health care, love and a way into this country. She now counts 53 grandchildren. Like most feisty Jewish grandmothers she was very matter of fact about the whole thing. I kept asking her, was there a role model, a source, a narrative, what was it that allowed her to live with such righteousness? She was emphatic that there was nothing that drove her, rather, she could not imagine living any other way. “What else would I do with my life?” She asked me, “They were in danger. So I brought them into my house and made them my children.”

I told her she was a tzaddik but she could’ve cared less. She had already built her life around the truth of helping other people and the truth of that was way more gratifying than of my admiration. Rather than stand at a distance, she had gone in the river, not to save everyone but to save enough souls so that she looked half her age, her smile came easily, and even when she was raising her voice, which was actually during the entire conversation, she didn’t seem angry. Because she had seen the curses of the world and instead chosen to be a blessing.

She is the living embodiment of what Torah means when it says in this week’s parasha, and I’ll end here:
V’asu li mikdash
“Build me a sanctuary that I might live among you.”

This is not about a building fund.
This is not even about a building.
This is about creating a sanctuary in our hearts, in our homes and in our society where God and righteousness can dwell, can thrive, where people can be safe.

V’asu li mikdash is about claiming more brothers, sisters, children as our own.
A safe society: That is a real mikdash / a real collective sanctuary,
The country as a mikdash / a sanctuary for all.
That is a prophecy worthy of Miriam the neviah,
The kind of prophecy worth us risking to realize.
The kind of blessing worth having,
And our wanting it, it is not futile, it is not hopeless, we mustn’t despair, building this sanctuary, this kind of a society, it is not beyond us, it is closer than we realize, it is actually within our reach.

​​​​​​What are you waiting for?

Noa Kushner // Mishpatim 2018

Sometimes we’re just waiting and it is… agonizing.
We are so aware we are waiting for whatever it is, whoever
It’s excruciating, all this waiting

Now the iphones / or ipharaohs as I like to call them
Have actually changed our perception of waiting
Because we can almost always be entertained or “connected”
We can forget that we are waiting.

But still
Maybe you can remember a time when there was nothing on the whole world wide internet that could provide enough distraction
We can conjure up how it was
Maybe we were in the doctor’s office, somewhere waiting
Waiting for test results
Waiting to see if this time it would work out
Waiting for the plane to take off
Waiting for our beloved to return
For the letter to come from your daughter at summer camp
For the call from the potential employer
For the call back from the one whom you offended and apologized
And now you are waiting for the call back
Waiting for the day to end
For the sun to come up
Or maybe waiting for something even bigger than all these
Sometimes we don’t even realize we are waiting, we have gotten so used to the weight of it for so long

I was thinking about waiting rooms
And I was feeling the certain relief of a waiting room
Because, even if we don’t know the outcome in the waiting room
The waiting, has been defined, hasn’t it?
It is between four walls
even if the doctor is very late this waiting has an endpoint.

Yehuda Amichai has a poem where he talks about the waiting room of Torah and all the people inside
Job hunkering down waiting for more bad news
The waiting room of Moses in the desert
Where he paces back and forth and doesn’t sit still for an instant.
Amicha ends the poem with the line:

And all of us
Wait with them
in a rustle of wings
And a flutter of newspapers
And coughs and sighs and whispered conversations—
We wait for the door to be opened by the angel in white
And behind that angel the blinding white light.

As if to say, life is a waiting room and when the waiting ends, life itself ends.
As if to say, there is no time when we are not waiting for something, many things, there is no time when we are not anticipating something else is coming
There is no time when don’t somewhere know, somewhere in us, that we don’t get to live forever
And so we are always waiting for or at least anticipating one thing, whether we are aware of it or not.

So the question becomes, the question that weaves in and out of our lives
The answers changing:
What are we waiting for? How are we waiting?

How can we learn to wait for something truly new, to imagine something on another level, so that we don’t just wait for the same things over and over?

How can we understand all this waiting
as an active waiting
As in, I am not only waiting, waiting is what you see on the outside, I may seem as if I am perfectly still, I may be indistinguishable from the person next to me
But inside,
something is growing, something is going on
And this waiting is the beginning of growth.

I am thinking about waiting because in Torah this week and the upcoming weeks we have two kinds of waiting going on simultaneously
One very different from the other.

See in this week’s parasha, Mishpatim
Moshe will goes up on Sinai receiving the aseret hadibrot, the ten commandments
Fourty days and fourty nights
He is not waiting, he is receiving or writing or creating moral DNA or coding the universe or whatever we think happened there
But everyone else is, as you might remember, at the bottom of the mountain, a ways away.
And there’s a midrash that we were waiting for Moshe to come back
But the thing is, we were ONLY waiting
In fact,
We were desperate for Moshe to come back
See, according to tradition, even though we had witnessed all these full scale miracles, the ones that got us out of Egypt
Maybe because of these miracles,
Even though, because either way
we were used to either a totalitarian dictator, Pharaoh, or a high octane, high presence God – represented of course by Moshe and only Moshe
The rabbis say that we were not free yet
Rather in leaving Egypt we had just traded our round the clock Pharaoh boss for Moshe
Someone we believed was as all controlling as Pharoah, just with more power.
We hadn’t really found God say the rabbis
Or ourselves
So that when, in the parasha in a few weeks, Moshe is late coming down
Some say he was six months late
Some say he was six days late
Some say he was only six seconds late
We were so undone, so strung out from the waiting
Waiting without any understanding of the possibility of our growth,

That when (according to midrash) Moshe did not come back right when we expected
The feeling of waiting and anxiety was so severe
We collapsedWe could not wait any longer
And out of desperation
We made a Golden Calf / a Moshe – Pharaoh substitute right on the spot
We prayed to it and danced around it in a trance saying, “This is God.”

See, when you are waiting that intensely without understanding that the waiting can be a precursor to growth
Everything, even a golden calf statue, could quickly and easily become your God. 
 

See, we thought, mistakenly, that if we had a golden calf
We could stave off the excruciating feeling of waiting and not being filled
We thought, mistakenly, that Moshe’s absence was the whole problem
And the lack of security that seemed to go with it
We had not yet learned that we are always waiting
That being free is getting used to the waiting, learning what to do with it, Maybe learning how to plant something in that waiting
Learning how to transform that waiting into growing.

There is a second image of waiting, this one in our parasha
I had never noticed it until now, maybe you didn’t either

In fact, this second kind of waiting is only hinted at -- when Moshe is getting ready to ascend Sinai at last.
And Torah says:
Va yakam Moshe v’ Yehoshua m’sharto /
And Moses rose with Joshua his servant

V’ya’al Moshe el har ha-elohim /
And Moses went up to the mountain of God

So all we know from this is two things:
(1) Joshua (Moses’ close student) gets up with Moshe at a key moment, and (2) then Moshe goes up Sinai alone. 

And we also know that when Moshe is coming back down from Sinai, 
In the middle of what will be the golden calf fiasco
Right before Moshe sees what is going on and in bitter disappointment and anger breaks the tablets  
Moshe first sees and talks with Joshua who seems to be right where Moshe left him, Joshua’s been waiting by himself at the foot of the mountain. 

So, in other words, now we understand, while Moshe was on Sinai and Israelites were losing their minds and building idols, Joshua is by himself, also waiting the whole time but just quietly and loyally. 

Which makes the rabbis wonder: How did Joshua survive all alone? What did he eat? 

And it makes me wonder, 
how is it that Joshua, who (according to Rashi) just a few chapters ago was so worried about the idea of Moshe dying he could even tolerate hearing the words spoken out loud – 

How is it that Joshua, here, all alone, not only survives the prolonged absence of his teacher

He has the emotional presence to greet Moshe, right when Moshe comes off the mountain, Joshua doesn’t even ask for anything, only tries to help. 

We want to know: What is the nature of this kind of waiting, what keeps Joshua whole?

I have two answers:
First, Rashi (our 11th century supercommentator) says: 
I do not know what Joshua’s role is here. 
But I think he was escorting the master until the place where the limits of the mountain were set.
(Meaning, everyone knew only Moshe could go up Sinai and so Joshua took Moshe as far as he could go.)

What keeps Joshua whole? I think maybe it is because Joshua has a role to play, he has a role to accompany Moshe as far as he can possibly go and then no further. Maybe Moshe should have given all of Israel this explicit role. To help send Moshe off and receive him again. 

Because when we have this role, when we accompany someone we love as far as we can possibly go and no further, even if we cannot go with them, we realize our importance
To them, to us
We are not empty, far from it
We might, a piece of us, wish we could go completely with them
But we are not empty 

Like a parent accompanying a bride before she reaches the chuppah
Like going with someone to the hospital – this far but not into surgery
Like watching someone you love soar from peering in her classroom window, from the front row
Like leviat hamet / like accompanying our dead to the grave
We walk as close to those we love as we possibly can, we carry them, and then there is a line we cannot cross
Because as much as we love them, we can’t go with them
We stay where we are and we are important from where we stand, to them and to us.

This sending off and receiving someone back, sometimes in a different way (even though death) is one of the great tasks of life and Joshua has discovered it. By giving himself this role, by waiting in this way, casting and receiving, loving and releasing, he is able to stay grounded in his waiting. 

“Moshe is coming back,” He thinks to himself. “And I will be here to greet him.” 

And I want to suggest a second answer for why Joshua stays whole:
That maybe during these 40 days and 40 nights
Joshua sees that even all alone, even without Moshe present, he still exists.
He sees hIs life is not a yawning gap waiting to be filled
And he begins to understand that waiting can also be the beginning of something
A beginning of growing into someone else

Maybe Joshua doesn’t see this on the first day
Maybe the first few nights even are lonely and frightening
But I imagine that he starts to understand, as the hours pass

That even if he cannot fully realize it now
The reality that Moshe will die
And one day Joshua will take the place of Moshe
He understands on a deep level this reality

Maybe not to be realized today but one day
He starts to hear it
He starts to see that he has something within himself
He sees that (ah ha!) even without Moshe, he can keep some of Moshe in him
That there are many ways to keep someone’s presence very close
And so the waiting becomes growing
He opens up to who he might be
And the waiting strengthens his faith. 

Finally, you know there’s a tradition that when Moshe dies much later, Joshua will write the last eight lines of the Torah – the lines that describe the death of Moshe and ready us to enter the promised land
Joshua will lead us there
And his book, the book of Joshua, will follow and describe it

And so, given everything, I am convinced it is during these moments in the desert
When Moshe is receiving the Torah
That quietly, at the very same time, 
Just as Moshe receives most of our Torah on high, on the mountain topIn opening his eyes to what might be, to who he might be, 
In understanding that he is not just waiting, there is something growing at this very moment
Joshua is receiving his first eight lines down below.  

Parashat Shemot

R. Noa Kushner // Parashat Shemot 5778

So I am teaching Torah Love, which is what we call the bar / bat mitzvah class
with kids and parents.
You know why we call it that?
Because I know they will have their beautiful b’nai mitzvah, but we want them to
know why, we want them to love Torah.
So I am teaching them, happens to be this week’s parasha, parashat shmot, and
Moshe is at the burning bush/
And I ask the class what questions they have about the story.
(The whole class, the whole secret to loving Torah is finding great questions.)
And, one by one, each kid asks some version of, “Why was Moses chosen?”
“What makes Moses special?”
“What makes Moses, Moses?”
And so on.

And I have admit that I was worried, like why were all the kids so focused on
what made Moshe extraordinary? Didn’t they have a single question about God
or the burning bush or slavery or what it would take to free the Israelites?

Were we all now hopelessly doomed to think only about ourselves and our own
qualities and what makes us special so we could all promote ourselves?
Was this somehow Trump’s fault?

I went home a little defeated.
But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized the rabbis had the same
question.

The rabbis also wanted to know, “Why Moshe?”

Because, when you read the story, you can’t help but think, whether you are
Rashi in the 11 th century or a 7 th grader in Kitchen’s Kitchen Torah love class:

What could God possibly see in this guy?

Let’s look at Moshe together.
He’s wandering in the midbar / in the wilderness, with only the sheep, having
imaginary conversations with all people whom he despises --
(You think you have parent issues, Moshe’s step dad was PHARAOH)
-- Moshe is out there having imaginary conversations with his enemies, that they
deserve his fury doesn’t matter, because Moshe hasn’t done anything except
hate them.

Okay, we should give Moses at least some credit for leaving the palace, the
place of security and wealth. And Moses was willing to cut ties with those around
him who think slavery is just the way it has to be.
But still, he is all negation and no plan, he does not risk anything in himself in
order to build something.

And so the rabbis search for the answers:
Why Moshe?
Maybe he has, as my father R. Lawrence Kushner has taught, the patience to
see the slow miracle, that the bush was on fire but not consumed. If you have
ever watched a fire you know it takes some time, shows persistence.

Or maybe, as my friend R. David Kasher taught from Exodus Rabbah taught this
week, by turning to look, Moshe demonstrated he can see an inkling of a
something, he can see what is not yet there.

Or maybe, as I have taught, it is not only that Moshe stops, he asks maduah /
why? “Why is it that the bush does not burn up?”
It is because he asks “Why,” the question that opens the possibility that maybe,
there is another way – this is why he is chosen. Because Moshe knows that
things don’t have to be as they are.

But, actually, after thinking about it this year, I think the exact point is that Moshe
was...not much overall.

Let’s put it this way: If Moses was indeed destined from the beginning, even if he
had something innate, then so far he wasn’t capable of demonstrating it with any
particular aplomb.

He’s kind of a mess, actually.
We could say he is a recluse, still running from something that happened
decades ago.

In fact, in this less charitable reading, Moses is operating on such a basic level
that God has to resort to Vegas style pyrotechnics to even get the conversation
started.

Remember God doesn’t have to make any miracles to get the attention of
anyone else who is important. So far, God just sort of calls out to them and they
talk back, ready. In fact, the midwives don’t need any word from God at all.
And the miracle itself, not to be disrespectful, but it is kind of starter level – not
exactly seas splitting, you know?

Just a lowly bush that is burning, and even the rabbis have wondered – why
didn’t the miracle happen in something a little more dignified? A nice palm tree?
(Shir Hashirim Rabba 3:10).

Not to mention, famously, God has to keep asking Moshe to get involved,
promising him divine protection, all kinds of tricks and proofs, over and over and
over. It gets to the point where God becomes furious in the face of Moshe’s
repeated refusals and self-negation, his abdication of responsibility, God gets
furious that Moshe can’t begin to play the role, let alone own it.

Moshe seems at the very least, an unlikely partner.

Not to mention, as Dena Weiss taught this week (Machon Hadar weekly Torah
on Shemot), Moshe is not the only one in this scene who is at a low point in his
career. Up until now, God has only been playing in the local theaters, if you know
what mean.

This next chapter is about to be God’s national tour with world changing
consequences. So all conditions point to God need to pick the most eager, able
partner.

Which only makes the scene more confusing, more confounding: If Moshe is so
recalcitrant, why Moshe at all?

I mean, okay, I’ll grant that obviously Torah seems to have Moshe in mind from
the start, we follow Moshe’s story closely from the time he was born all the way
through his early life.

But I still think there is something significant in the fact that at this moment the
whole thing could go either way. It could be a story about a baby who was born,
hidden in a basket in the Nile, raised in the palace and who ran away. God says
To Moshe: “Tell Pharoah, ‘Let my people go,’ and Moshe says, “No.” God picks a
more willing partner, the end.

So why does God stick with Moshe? Why is it important that the hero be
underwhelming at the start?

Because Moshe is like most of us.
We, too are born in conditions we did not choose.
We, too are raised in places and countries and contexts where the values seem
obviously, hopelessly, endlessly corrupt.
We, too, handle things inconsistently.
We, too, can feel like we are wandering in the wilderness, having accomplished
almost nothing.

We, too, in response to the calls of suffering, can still catch ourselves saying, “Mi
Anochi?” / “Who am I to try and fix it?” And, “What if they don’t believe me?” We
too, can hear ourselves staying, just like Moshe, “I just don’t have the tools. I
don’t even have the beginning of the beginning of what I might need.”

We, too, can imagine ourselves saying,
“Send someone else. Make it someone else. Please. Anyone else.”

Because we too, have not always figured out how to move from the outsider or
the critic to the active protagonist in our own stories, let alone the stories of our
communities, and our time.

So the question for us this Shabbat, in this moment in our country’s history, is
not, will we hear the call, for those calls to step up and wake up and stay awake
and be agitated and angry are now ricocheting around the globe it seems from
each and every corner at a rapid fire pace, unlike the subtle burning bush, the
calls now are unavoidable, they are like a hailstorm, and I dare say there is not
one of us who has not heard at least a few.

No, the question is not about hearing the call,
The question is Moshe’s question: Will we step forward?
Will we, intentionally or begrudgingly, Judaism doesn’t much care, will we
generate the modicum of necessary continual strength to step in the ring and
stay?
Will we have the discipline to respond?

Will the story of the Exodus, the facing down of oppressors and freeing of the
oppressed, end with one insecure, uncomfortably relatable shepherd who says
no again and again?
Or can he, can we, put whatever it is aside and realize all our neuroticism and
grand planning and ego gymnastics cannot take the place of one regular and
serious commitment?

And for those of us who don’t know what the action should be, I am here to tell
you that agonizing about the best way to act is just a higher level of
procrastinating.
Talking about it, even sermonizing about it, just isn’t enough.

You, I, we each have to do one thing with regularity. Sincerity is appreciated, but
if we wait until we are sincere we may never do it, so the tradition says, go ahead
and do it, don’t wait for angels to sing.

And if we are at a loss for where to start we can, like 120 Kitchen-ites are doing,
start going to Glide (in fact 15 Kitchen-ites were there this morning serving
breakfast), we can join up with a group like Bend the Arc that is organizing for
criminal justice reform in California, we could work to figure out how to win the
next election (find Kitchen-ite Robert Fram, he has a plan). There’s no shortage
of ways to donate the amount of time or money equivalent to the corners of our
fields, and we can help you, this is what it means to do Jewish, to be part of the
larger camaraderie of the decent.

You see it is not only Moses who is standing and listening, we are standing.
And the calls are nonstop, the evidence is mounting, the Pharoah is not getting
any weaker by our absence, and God is losing patience.

So, really, the question is only if will we have the discipline to sacrifice our
comfort or convenience or relationships or status or security in order to do what’s
needed with regularity in order to bring about a world in which we want to live.

You see, after all this divine arguing and negotiating, it’s funny, Moses never
says, “Yes.” Never says, “Okay, God, you win.” Instead, Moses only starts the
work of making arrangements: He asks his father in law for permission to go to
Egypt, he gets on the road, he tells his brother what they are about to do, they
begin.

Moses never says, “Yes,” I think, because he never feels ready.
Rather, it is only once Moshe starts acting the part can he grow into being
sometimes, mostly ready.

R. Arnold Jacob Wolf, z”l wrote: “Freud meant us when he said that words do not
express so much as suppress, that only acts can dissipate ambivalence.” (Arnold
Jacob Wolf, Unfinished Rabbi, p. 87).

So in the end, Moses, against all his better instincts, never says “Yes,” never
says anything to end that conversation with God, but instead, puts on his sandals
again and goes back to the palace where it all started, he goes to the very place
he does not want to go and is not welcome.

But something about the fact that he gets out of his head and out of the
wilderness,
something about the fact that in spite of all of it he goes,
something about that act is so powerful it reverberates around the world and
back again.

And because of those acts for once, the oppressors do not automatically win.
And because of those acts for once, brute force does not automatically rule the
day.

The changes don’t happen quickly or efficiently, the leaving of Egypt and the
beginning of freedom is messy, messier, more costly than anyone could’ve ever
imagined.

But make no mistake, the moment when Moses drags himself begrudgingly onto
the scene and into action, he makes just enough room for God and justice to
enter the world once again.

Search and Rescue

R. Noa Kushner // Hanukkah 5778

Rabbi David Hartman, z”l asks a good question:
Why is Hanukkah 8 days?
That is, if the miracle was that the oil lasted for seven but they only had enough oil for one day, isn’t it true that you should not call the first day a miracle?

As if you had enough gas to get to Burlingame but made it to Santa Rosa, is the part of the trip that gets you to Burlingame still miraculous?
Yes, says Hartman.
Because the real miracle is that even seeing that they did not have enough, they lit it anyway.

So easy, he teaches, not to try, to rationalize that we know that whatever it is will not succeed -- so why bother. There is no point in making the effort.
So the miracle is when, in spite of this, we try.

In his words: “Hanukkah teaches that we should pour infinite yearnings into small vessels…That only lamps that are lit can burn beyond their anticipated life span.” (R. David Hartman, A Different Light, edited by Zion and Spectre, p. 195).

Such a beautiful idea.
And it made me consider that in order to try to light that one flask of oil
to make that holy light,
Even before they tried, the Maccabees also had to be willing to go back to the desecrated temple.

They had to go to the hardest place, the place that would be the most painful to see.
They had to go back to where they had lost something precious.
Maybe they went back even to see their own part in the destruction, after all they went back right after a war in which they took part.

So maybe we could also say that another requisite for hanukkah miracle is a willingness to show up, to return to the scene, even to experience sorrow, desolation, and heartache.  

Because we cannot see light in perfect light can we? We can only see light where there’s darkness. That is, in places where it is hard to see,
That’s where the light shines.

Not only did they return to the scene, but we know in Talmud it says that before they found the cruz / flask of oil, they found oil they couldn’t use, in fact, no other oil was usable, everything was tainted (Shabbat 21:b).

Which makes us wonder: How many times did they find some oil only to realize they could not use it?
How many times were they tempted to use something that was not suitable, means that were not pure?
How many times did they just want to throw in the towel and use the bad stuff? How many times did they think, “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” you know what I mean?

Because sometimes, when you are crawling around in the darkness, and you find something or someone that looks like what you need,
Even if you know it won’t work,
Sometimes we are tempted to pretend it will work, to force something to fit that does not fit, aren’t we all tempted like that?
We can be tempted in lowly times to behave in a lowly manner, to let ourselves be dragged down.
To respond with spite or pettiness or out of fear,
To just let the ends justify the means.

But we realize from this story with this strange little miracle,
That if they had accepted the oil that was unfit,
If they had tried to make holy light in way that was not holy,
Then there would have been no miracle at all.
Because there was PLENTY of corrupted stuff lying around (always is)/
Enough I imagine for 17 hundred days of Hanukkah.
If they had accepted even some of it,
It would have just burned and that would be that.
And then no one would ever see or know that it was possible that a little bit of pure light could outlast everyone’s expectations,
Could change what is possible in the world.

Hanukkah is not discussed at all in Torah, barely mentioned in the sources.
And I looked and the Talmud gives us exactly one verb to describe everything that happened between the time when the Maccabees returned to the Temple and when they finally found the right oil.
The verb is Livdok / To search.
And I’m thinking that “To search” is the process of not accepting just what is in front of us, but instead expecting more, demanding more, and so we learn this is the key verb of Hanukkah.

So maybe we can imagine this year that Hanukkah is the holiday of searching and finding.
Search and rescue.
Because in these times, it can be easy to be confused between the real lights and the fakes, right?In fact R. Heschel says we are shrinking from the real light.
He says that we have become afraid to admit what we really believe and love and admire,
We have become afraid to admit that everyone is made in the image of God (or the force or the universe).
We have become afraid to admit that we depend on one another, that we are responsible for one another.

Instead, we have accepted suspicion and divisiveness as a substitute for that belief and the obligation that would flow from it --
But suspicion and divisiveness and self protection is like the oil that is unfit,
There is plenty around but it won’t do the job.
It won’t protect us or make our society whole. (Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 7-8.)

See we don’t have to settle for a tax code that fails to take responsibility to protect the vulnerable and the weak among us.
We don’t have to settle for likes and popularity and winning when we could have relationships and arguments and larger moral frameworks we all work to uphold.
We don’t have to settle for a tarnished symbolic capitol when the holy city of Jerusalem deserves, if not perfect peace, then at least a way for our loved ones and all people there to live with dignity and in freedom. 

See Hanukkah reminds us that miracles are not imaginary!
On the dreidel: it says neis gadol hayah sham / a great miracle happened there because the idea is that one could happen here, too.

And in the blessing we just said: we sang about the miracles that happened in the time of our ancestors and in OUR TIME, too, bazman ha zeh, this very time right now.

See, miracles are not imaginary.
And we don’t have to accept whatever ersatz, stand-in, flimsy, wanna-be miracle whip, “miracles” just because they are presented as the real thing.

AND it goes without saying that when we find the good stuff, the pure oil, the real light, it will never seem like enough.
Of course it is not enough!
When we find that pure light (that real moment of exchange with another person, the politician who acts with total moral courage, that moment in a state called Alabama),
Whenever we find that small bit of light, we will always feel like asking ourselves: This is it? Isn’t there more? There is so much of the junky stuff, how can that be all?
And all of a sudden, we are so thirsty for this real light, it seems there is not enough,
But that thirst makes us who we are, that’s what this Jewish thing means – to be thirsty for the real light, the possibility of a true miracle.

So that is when we have to remember our story and (remind one another, tell one another this story), the story about the strange little miracle recorded by the rabbis: That once there was not enough, we even knew there was not enough and yet, somehow, there was enough and there is enough.

Even now
The Sfat emet teaches,
Even now,
There is enough.
There is enough light within us.
Even now when many of us feel our lights are sputtering, going out
From the weight of the world, from everything,
Sfat Emet teaches even now there is enough.
We are just still learning how to find it, how to light it
And so the Hanukkah candles are a gift from heaven, like ancient flashlights, so that we can search out these real lights hidden within each of us,
And in each another,
And when we see evidence of them, faint but unmistakable, out in the world. (Sfat Emet 1:198).

 

Ki Gam Zeh Lach / Because this is also for you

R. Noa Kushner // Vayishlach 5778

This is a time of great unrest
Something fundamental is changing, many things

Political energies
Fundamental power dynamics
Things that were not discussed, here I am talking about sexual harassment, violence, are now out in the open

For some, it seems like everyone around them, trusted figures, are now
suspect, guilty, violators, it is disorienting, new

And for some, it seems like the world is finally beginning to wake up to a great injustice that has been systemically, basically ignored since the beginning of time
The latest names in the news are just some in a long, long list

There are great shifts taking place
But in times of unrest there is also great possibility

I noticed for the first time this week in Torah that not only does Ya’akov / Jacob wrestle with a mysterious eish / man, maybe an angel (not clear)  
Finally receiving a blessing that he earns rather than steals and wrenching his leg in the process
Remember that he receives a new name: “God wrestler”

I noticed, not only that but there is another wrestling match, this one with a different outcome
Because at the end of the parasha
Rachel is giving birth to her second of two children
And it is also a struggle
Torah uses a different word
We know it is a struggle because Rachel is neither here nor there, they are all on the road, on the way to Ephrat, the road being not a place where you want to go into labor
And we know it is a struggle because the labor is described / t’kash b’lid’tah / hard labor / kashah, something stubborn, immutable, irreducable
Like avodah kashah (hard brutal labor of slavery)

And we know it is a struggle because that same phrase “hard labor” is repeated again right away
We know it is a struggle because when the labor was at its hardest
As the midwife says to Rachael, “Al Tiri”
“Don’t be afraid” (I’ll come back to that later) but for now, if she had to say it, we know Rachael was feeling it

And we know the labor is a struggle because Rachel names that baby, Ben-oni, the child of my suffering
And even though her husband will quickly rename that baby Ben-yamin, “Son of my right hand” Torah records that suffering, that name, no matter what comes of it, Torah unflinchingly records the suffering that took place

And finally, sadly, we know it is a struggle because
although she brings another soul into the world, Rachael dies in childbirth
She is remembered but her body is no more.

So here we have two struggles in one parasha
In one, a person wrestles in the dark and prevails
He is hurt, but he leaves more or less intact, blessed,
Even with a new name
As if someone new has taken his place in his old body, what we call transformation

In the other, less known story, a person wrestles on the road and also creates a new person
With a new name
But while she enables great change, it is a very different kind of transformation
Because as I said, Rachael doesn’t live through it

First, let’s get a few things out of the way
I don’t want to romanticize Rachael’s death
I wish she did not die at that moment
And I am not saying that men wrestle and change
and women can only make change either by giving birth or dying or both

No, we are all Jacob and we are all Rachael and that is my point
That in times of great change
Personal change
Societal change
We have two models, and it would help us to figure out which one we are in this moment

In both there is a struggle
But in one, the body is hurt, yet blessed and renamed
And in the other, the body of Rachel cannot make it any longer – it must give way as something new comes to live in the world.

And as I read the paper, with story after story of sexual harassment, sexual violence, abuse of power, sexual trafficking
And I see all the powerful people who have fallen
And I perceive but don’t see all the victims, because they are even afraid to be seen
So many
Not to mention all the ones who died without being ever able to say what happened
I wonder if we are wrestling through the night, if our society can be renamed, hurt but blessed at the end
Or if the basic assumptions we hold will have to give way so something new can be born. Something born of suffering but something that can be a key part of our future.

I am truly not sure, maybe it is both
Either way, a fundamental shift is taking place and I feel,
as we learn,
we will need to remember that there is something loving and essential in us and between us
And, in addition to finally telling the truth, (maybe as a part of telling this truth) this trusting love can be simultaneously cultivated
So that even if all we are hearing about now is our ability to destroy one another in ways small and monumental
We must work to remember that
just as undeniably
We carry within us a connection to one another
An ability to show chesed, lovingkindness, a sweet generosity
an unlimited, and unobligated loving kindness, a trusting love
That this is also fundamentally who we are.

I have three stories of this chesed, this loving kindness
I thought of a story I heard about fire fighters up in Santa Rosa
There had been a senior home that had been particularly hard hit
A crew of men and women were on site around the clock
The fear was that because some of the seniors could not have left quickly enough as the fire raged through
That many were no longer living
So the fire fighters were working around the clock
Doing the painful work of going through the ashes to try to find clues, in this case they were looking literally for a fragment of a person
Can you imagine
But once in a while, the site leader would get a call, because someone who had lived in that place was found alive, safe, identified
And she would make an announcement to the whole team
And a resounding collective cheer would go up to the heavens to the sky from these service people
They were cheering for a life of a person they had never met and would likely never know, they were just cheering because another person was alive.

See we think our orbits are discreet
And we think our lives don’t matter except to those who are related to us, our friends
But as human beings, even those of us hearing this story now
We don’t have to know those who were in danger
We can picture their apartments, their lives
We feel like cheering, too.
One more is alive
See, this chesed / lovingkindness is what has been implanted in us
And we are capable of destruction but we are capable of great chesed, unlimited lovingkindness, too.

This summer, as you know, there was a tragedy in our community
A holy man, died in accident, and his daughter died too
He was a tzaddik
I have no satisfying explanation for any of it, and I am still angry about it
I will tell you about them over dinner if you like
But the reason I am bringing it up, the story I want to tell, is how a few weeks after the funeral I got a phone call.
You see, when the accident happened, I had been in touch with some local officials to help make arrangements, and I left my phone number on a voice mail
And so one day, weeks later, I got a call from the policeman who was on duty the day of the crash, he called out of the blue, I had never met him
He apologized for calling, and he told me in a quiet voice, “I never do this but I was there that day and still had your number from the voice mail and I wanted to know… could you tell me what happened, were they all right?”
And I had to tell him, no. This time it did not turn out all right
And this policeman and I, who had never met, and likely never would meet, strangers
Had a cry on the phone together.
See, the policeman tracked me down because it was impossible for him to stay detached
Because we as humans are capable of great generosity, of caring so deeply for one another, not just our friends but any other person, just as a base line, this is how we were created
We are capable of tapping into a great love /an ahavah rabbah / for one another
And acting out of a place of this love has huge implications for our country right now

I was at the Glide Holiday Jam this week
I’ll just say the music was much better than any Jewish fundraiser like ever.
I know at least 50 of you took an incredible class at Glide last night, just the beginning
I was at the event with thousands of others and Reverend Cecil Williams was asked to speak about an incredible woman who had been their president for twenty-two years and who was just stepping down.
Many people spoke and used fine words, evocative words
Janice Mirakatani, his wife, blew the room away with her overwhelming gratitude and affection as the poet she is
But Reverend Williams just sat in his 80-something body, in his wheelchair and said softly
The only way he speaks these days
Softly softly into the microphone
I love you
I love you Amy I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you Amy I love you

He said it until we were all weeping
Because his love for this person, in his quiet repetition, it became an ahavah rabbah / a great love
A love for which we did not need to know either of them to understand
An overwhelming love, an everlasting love
A love that was and is available to us all
And when he loved her so much, in front of all of us
I am telling you the troubles of the world for just one moment were suspended
And we all fit inside that great love
We drew from it like a wellspring
And here it is right now, in the room, this shabbat

And so, at last, I want to return to our scene with Rachael eimanu, Rachael our mother
She is struggling mightily, a major transformation is taking place literally in her body, the way I imagine we are struggling in our society now
And the midwife says to her, “Don’t be afraid” “You are having a baby, something new is being born”
“Don’t be afraid”

In other words, the midwife says: this struggle is profound, ultimate,
it may change everything, but it is not meaningless
Something will come of it
And the fact that the midwife says, “Don’t be afraid” is significant

Not that anything in Torah is extraneous but this phrase, Al Tiri / “Don’t be afraid” is hugely loaded, because
Abraham Aveinu (our father), in a scene of personal desperation, all alone is told by God (al tirah) not to be afraid, he will be blessed
Isaac our father, all alone, in the night, is told by God not to be afraid, he is connected to his father and the future and he will be blessed
And a few chapters later, Jacob approached by God  as he prepares to go to Egypt to meet his long lost son Joseph, he is told (al tirah) not to be afraid, Joseph will bury him and he will die in piece, the patriarch of a great nation
God says it to Hagar, when she is worried her boy will die. Throughout all of stories of Bereisheet, this phrase is always uttered, in big moments, by God.

So the fact that the midwife is saying, Al Tiri / “Don’t be afraid” is no accident
Don’t you see? Unlike other midwives, this midwife has no name
She just appears in the middle of nowhere and helps Rachael to give birth,

So I think if we can say, as we already say, that the unnamed eish / man who visits Jacob in the middle of the night and wrestles with him and renames him
If we can say that man is an angel, as we already do, that unnamed man is God
Then I think we can also safely say this unnamed midwife --
Who cannot save Rachael
but can indeed tell her and us that our struggles are not in vain
Who can help us to deliver what is next --
I think we can safely say this woman is also divine, this midwife is an angel, this midwife is also an agent of God
Midwife sure talks like God
(Our God of the mighty hands and the outstretched arms, just saying.)
As we learn from R. Yehoshua of Sakhnin / God says, “… I was the midwife to my children” (Yechezkiel 16:4) Kohelet Rabbah 3:8:2

So maybe in these times
When difficult, necessary truths are being revealed at a rapid fire pace
When things are this destabilizing
We must not only channel the great and everlasting love that has been implanted within each of us
We should also try to find the midwives who can help us transform
Or maybe we’ll have to be the midwives
So we can remind each other that the struggle is not meaningless
And we shouldn’t be afraid
Because this kind of destruction is sometimes what happens when something altogether new is being born.

“Where is Sarah?”

R. Noa Kushner // Lech Lecha 5778

Abraham is known as a spiritual genius.
He is seen in the parasha (torah portion) scanning the horizon looking for opportunities to connect to God or something spiritual.

Famously, he sees this opportunity in the form of three people, strangers even.
Abraham sees this opportunity because he has been waiting, he has made room, he has been looking for it. So that when the strangers go by, Abraham is ready, he is begging the strangers to come in as his guests.
He asks for help from Sarah, and from his servant boy to cook a meal. Many verbs are used to explain all these preparations. And we remember that these servants will be the ones to tell him that he and Sarah will have a son. We admire Abraham’s willingness to wait, look, host, imagine an opportunity and then to sit back and receive it.

But what I noticed this week, is that after agreeing to sit with Abraham, the first thing the stranger angels ask is, “Where is your wife Sarah?”

“Where is your wife, Sarah?”

And I think this question, now that we highlight it, shows a blind spot for Abraham. Because, of course, the announcement of the birth of Isaac will not just be for him alone!  It will be, actually, just as much for the person who left on this journey with him, the one who just prepared the food, the one who is right behind him in the doorway as he speaks to these angels: The message is also for Sarah.

Now Martin Buber makes a great teaching of noticing that when God asks Adam and Eve in the garden, “Where are you?” (They are hiding behind a bush after eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge – not an exceptionally clever hiding place), It is not that God does not know where they are, rather, God wants Adam and Eve to know they are hiding, to admit it to themselves.

Here too, the angels (of course!) know where Sarah is. But they want Abraham to see his blind spot. The angels want Abraham to consider: “Where is Sarah?” “Where is Sarah?” – as if to say, “You had better find out b/c the story literally can’t happen without her.”

And to that point, what follows is a strange mess of conversation where the angels tell Abraham that Sarah will have son, and Sarah hears and laughs to herself (a great moment in Torah), and God hears Sarah laughing to herself, not only hears, is offended, and as a result yells at Abraham, saying, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?”

There are so many mix-ups it is almost like an I love Lucy episode or something.

But God’s (over) reaction all underscores the absence of Sarah to begin with. If God wants to know how Sarah feels, or even yell at her for doubting God, it seems obvious that God should speak with her. Directly.

So it seems God shares the same blind spot as Abraham: God asks Abraham why Sarah is laughing.

And if the scene ended there, it would be a good teaching about massive blind spots, both human and divine. But the scene doesn’t end there.

Because when God is ranting to Abraham, Sarah is still listening, and she even answers saying, “I did not laugh.” Of course it is not clear whom she is addressing -- God or Abraham (the ambiguity seems apt) because we only get the masculine pronoun: “He.” Still, she speaks up. And then, at last last, the “he” or “He” responds, only to refute her, “You did laugh.”

For such a big meeting and announcement, it is not an awesome note to end on: “I did not laugh.” “You did so laugh.” Rather, it is strange and awkward.

But what I want us to notice is that at long last, at the very end, Sarah has entered herself in the conversation, indeed changed the direction of it, and she got there not by anyone’s invitation but simply by laughing to herself.

True, she is only there defending herself and actually, she’s lying: “I didn’t laugh.”

True, the fact that she was not really addressed properly from the beginning is never even brought into question, this large issue is not even directly addressed.

But, still, unmistakably, Sarah is at the table. She brings in a different narrative strain altogether, one that remains unresolved. Why? Because she laughed to herself, because Sarah’s laughter has the power to upset God. And while we could easily say that this God here seems to be of a surprisingly fragile ego, still, this is a God who is an observant God, this is a God who notices small things, who not only notices but cares.

So maybe the work of chipping away blind spots begins with these ideas:
If Abraham had them and God had them, we have them.
And maybe if we are the ones who are not invited to whatever table, or maybe if we notice to our shame that there are other missing voices, we can start by laughing to ourselves, we can begin by identifying the absence of a point of view, a kind of voice, even if at first it is only a private admission.

Maybe this Torah is here to teach us that if we notice, even if we are cynical at first, it matters a great deal to God, and laughter can be a precursor, a prologue – not only a comment on what already happened, but a way of defining another kind of world view, a step towards what we might laugh into being.

 

What Does and Doesn’t Go Up in Flames: Noach and Og 5778

Rabbi Noa Kushner // Shabbat 1 Cheshvan 5778

I am close friends with Ruben Arquilevich, the director of Camp Newman (a Jewish camp in Santa Rosa). He is someone who teaches with his life, someone whose patience and wisdom radiates out.

In fact, we have this joke about Camp every summer that there is the same story: Some counselor on staff does something small against the rules. Everyone says to fire this person, but Ruben says to wait and let her redeem what she’s done. Every time Ruben is right, and the wayward counselors always become the best ones.

This is just one way he has raised a generation of people over decades of work and community building. It is living Torah up there. It is Nature + being whomever you are + the pursuit of justice + praying every day, learning, the whole thing. Of course, our Kitchen escapes have been there, too. (Not to mention, they had just undergone a 20 million dollar building campaign for new cabins.)

This is why, amongst the shock of so much destruction and loss of precious life, when the Camp was burned, destroyed in the recent fires, many many people were personally effected as if it were their own home -- Because it was their home. It was a communal home with many owners.

So you can imagine, as a result, many people were essentially sitting shiva as the photos came in: Buildings burnt to the ground, unrecognizable, the violent tracks of the fires were everywhere.

And although there were small signs of hope: A lone staircase remained from what used to be the welcome center as if to remind us to try to ascend.

The Jewish star on the mountain somehow made it even though it is made of wood.

One shed with tallitot and prayerbooks miraculously intact (not that I am saying you should regularly pray or wear a tallit, I am just saying.)

Even though there were some signs of hope, there was not much left.

This is why when we spoke to Ruben a few days ago, I was surprised to hear the calm in his voice. He did not sound like someone who had just lost everything. “You know, I finally got up there,” he said. “And you know what? The majority of the trees are still there. Much of the forest remains. I could hear birds, I saw deer. And you know, cabins can be rebuilt in a couple of years but nature? A forest takes 50 years. Not only that, but I felt the spirit of the kids there. Did you know that 600,000 people have reached out from all around the world? So the spirit of the place is intact. Yeah, we might need a temporary place for a summer or two but we’ll be okay. We still have nature, and we have the collective spirit, so we have everything we need.”

It made me think about how, with all the fire can destroy, has destroyed
-- and we grieve for the 42 lost souls and all the devastation --
With all that violence can destroy, there are some things that can never be destroyed.

And the more of us who own a place, a place like Camp, a community like this one, the more that a place is embedded in a mission that outlives its founders or owners, the more the responsibility is shared, not even amongst people but in relationship to the earth around it, in partnership with God / universe / the force, we learn the stronger that place is.
For some things can never be burnt. 
Some things cannot be destroyed.
Which sounds like a funny thing to say to introduce parashat Noach.
Of course, the story of Noah is about the ark and the flood and the famous story of the world being, well, destroyed.

But I think dafka this is the week to talk about what we can do together to help our dreams of Torah, our dreams of justice, our dreams of the world that we care about -- to survive.

Those of you who have learned with me before know that I often begin with the tradition’s understanding that Noach was righteous, yes, but not as righteous as Abraham or Moshe.

Why? Because when God tells Noach that God is going to destroy the world with a giant flood, although Noach does not hide this information, and even quietly tells his neighbors to change their ways (not that the neighbors were winning any awards for righteousness themselves. They were selfish and corrupt, cruel), but still, Noach doesn’t do much to help them, he doesn’t fight for them.

When God says God will destroy the world, Noach doesn’t argue,
He only saves himself and his family.

But there was some midrash I found this week that can help us think about Noach in a new light, and consider the position we find ourselves in our country.

Because we know natural disasters have become so frequent they are now difficult to track, the good of the many has too often taken a backseat to self-interest, and as a result, indirectly or directly (you can decide), indiscriminate violence has become, I shudder to say, commonplace.

So the first teaching is that, according to tradition, there was at least a one hundred year runway to the flood. It did not happen overnight.

In fact, the cedars that made up the ark? Noach (who was said to live to 600 and change) Noach planted those cedars himself.

To Ruben’s point, those trees took decades and decades to grow. And all that time we learn that Noach told anyone who asked what he was doing what would happen. Every step of the way people were given the opportunity to change (Tanhuma, Noach, 5).

And like on Yom Kippur when we learn that the problem is never what we have already done, no matter how bad it is, the problem is when we refuse to believe we can change…

Such is the tragedy of the generation of Noach.They think the end of the world is a joke. They think that what they do or don’t do makes no difference. They don’t understand that the world is their responsibility. Even given so many chances, years and years of chances, they insist (all of them!) on only thinking of themselves, and so ultimately they destroy themselves.

So our first lesson is that, while we might be scarred by the fires or the hurricanes, our first lesson is to see them as signs to pay attention and change.

To understand these natural breaks are personal calls to each of us to enter the realm of collective responsibility, to see the planet, our society as belonging to each of us.

And further, even if we have done embarrassingly little, to know it is never too late to turn, to change.

So, lesson one: Step in the ring.
And there is a second, more complex teaching about Noach that I think can help us now.

Turns out that there is a giant in our tradition, Og. I need to tell you a little about Og. Og shows up over many generations in midrash. He is the epitome of brute force and self-interest. He is a true giant, not especially smart, just really big, you could say huge.

Left over from this early race in the beginning of the world (this is all in Torah, not making it up), Og shows up from time to time in the midrash. So when Abraham has his miracle baby Isaac at age 100, Rabbis say Og goes to the party to see for himself and once there he just says, “That baby is so puny, no miracle, I could squish him with my pinky!” (Genesis Rabbah 52:10)
Og is that kind of guy, everything in relation to himself.

Or when Abraham is in a war later on, the rabbis teach that Og offers to help, but only because he has designs on Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and hopes Abraham will die battle (Genesis Rabbah 42:8, Rabbeinu Bahya 14:13). Not an altruistic bone in his big body.

He is only finally destroyed by his own largess, in an ironic and symbolic moment, many years later: Og plans to crush Israel with a mountain, but God makes a hole in the mountain so that Og is trapped inside of his own brutality. Finally (in my amended version), Israel can attack him, collectively, all together, by hitting his ankles until he falls (Berakhot 54b).

I can think of a tone-deaf giant of self-interest (or, actually, two) that I would like to whack on the ankles until he falls but I digress.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the question of the rabbis is, if no one survives the flood but Noach and his family, and the generation of giants to which Og belonged is ancient history, how does Og make it through the flood and into the world?

Well, there’s a midrash that says, that as the waters are rising, Og approaches Noach and begs Noach to save him and let him come on the ark.

In this moment Og does not appeal to Noach’s righteousness, or even Noach’s compassion, Og appeals to Noach’s self interest, need for self-protection.

Og says, “I’ll be your slave for life.” And in a moment of weakness, or ego, or fear, or maybe it was a power grab, Noach makes a deal with the giant, and Og hangs on to the ark from the outside. Some say he rode on the roof. Some say he hung onto the gutter. But wherever he was, in all the sources, Noach punches a hole in the ark and feeds Og every day through that hole (Pirke de Rebbe Eliezer, 23).

In other words, Noach doesn’t just make one choice once to keep the giant slave, Noach punches a hole in the very ark that saves him and feeds that beast of power and self interest every day.

Maybe, just like tradition says HAMAN exists in every generation, and the Chasidim teach that HAMAN is within each of us, so too, Og exists in every generation: The power + largess  + rampant self-interest.

And as much as I really, really want to say Og is completely embodied in just one certain political figure, maybe one person in the entertainment business,

As much as I want to be able to tell you the one person to blame, okay two,
It is more responsible, and more honest, to say that while there are some clear victims, for the vast majority of us, we also have something of Og in each of us.

Something that just really wants to be powerful, no matter what the cost, no matter what or who is destroyed in the process, and this is what enables the giant Ogs of the world to gain power, to thrive.

Maybe it is time to admit we have invited Og onto the ark, into our hearts and lives and society, and there is a way in which we have continued to punch a hole in that ark in order to feed him every single day.

Maybe the sooner we realize this, we can understand that the only way to defeat the giant is collectively, of course, together!

Maybe we can begin to understand that fires and what happened in Puerto Rico (where they are still without power), and Los Angeles hotel rooms and yes, Las Vegas these are not necessarily distinct and separate crises nor are they inevitable.

For fires of all kinds will burn but there is a spirit that, if we work collectively can never be destroyed. There is a spirit that will help us not only rebuild what was there but can help us imagine what new justice might be born.

To this point, last week I saw a sculpture at the de Young last week by Cornelia Parker (Anti-Mass, 2005). You have to see it, it is a large series of burnt, charred pieces of wood, each held up by an almost invisible thread, so that the pieces are suspended in the air with spaces around them making up a large square cube the size of a building.

This sculpture is constructed from the charred remains of a Southern Baptist church that was burnt in act of racism. After the artist learned of the arson, she received permission to use the timbers of the burned church to make the piece.

So, if you can imagine you are standing there with me, we see a building but it is not a building. We see the lost church, the church that was burnt, and we can’t help but imagine the congregation, we can feel how much was lost, and at the same time understand, we are witnessing the spirit, the ruach ha kodesh, the ruach haelohim -- that no violence, no fire can take away. The art is all about the destruction, yes, but also about the spirit. And I can tell you that spirit is as present there as it is in this room right now.

So now we have a choice, we can walk away, moved by the stories, the art, but not imagining that there is a direct implication for how we live our lives. We can continue to feed the giant of self-protection that is so used to hitching a ride. We can watch as the fires burn churches and camps and the waters rise.

Or we can begin to join the many who are already out there working together,
Because together, we are stronger than any giant. Together we can do our part in sustaining the spirit of a just world that, god willing, will outlast us all.

Tzaddikim Anachnu

Rabbi Noa Kushner // Kol Nidrei 5778

1. The Mirror
Maybe it was because I happened to be in Jerusalem at the time so I couldn’t avoid all the changes. You see, I know Jerusalem. I have lived there, spent summers there, staffed more birthright tours there than I care to remember.

I’ve even seen Jerusalem when, in an extreme effort to display its modern side, the mayor shut down all the main streets and hosted a Formula 1 race through the entire city for 3 days. Here’s what I can tell you about speeding Formula 1 race cars echoing off Jerusalem stone: Very loud.

Maybe, had I not seen the entire city shut down, more extreme than when they hosted Formula 1, complete with ubiquitous posters of Donald Trump’s face plastered everywhere, each one begging for his approval. Maybe had I not seen the way every single soldier, scout, volunteer, police officer, police dog was employed as if moshiach / the messiah himself were arriving.

Maybe if I hadn’t just been to Yad VaShem myself and heard the stories of our people in the years leading up to the Shoah / Holocaust, how we were humiliated and ostracized, dehumanized, demonized,

Maybe if my heart had not been broken repeatedly there for five hours, and I knew I barely scratched the surface,  Maybe if I hadn’t heard the stories of the mothers who lost their children,

Maybe then Donald Trump’s 15 minute visit to Yad VaShem would not have effected me.

But the idea that he would not see it at all, not hear a single story, but just lay a wreath as if he did, that he would, after giving a speech using the acceptable phrases about the “systematic attempt to eliminate the Jewish people,” still write in the guest book,

“It is a great honor to be here with all my friends – so amazing and will never forget!” as if he were writing in a guest book at a wedding or a hotel, I couldn’t help it, it got to me.

Look. I don’t want all of Jewish life to be focused on what happened during the holocaust. I think since the beginning of The Kitchen I have referred to it publically maybe four times.

I tend to lean towards the position of David Hartman, z”l who used to say, (when asked to give lectures at Yad Vashem) that he would not speak there but would be happy to meet any group at the maternity ward of Hadassah hospital up the road.

So I am not upset that Trump didn’t say more emphatically how bad the Shoah / Holocaust was, nor was I offended that he did not say it more times or say it in longer sentences.

What upset me was how painfully obvious it was that the entire visit was a series of symbolic visuals, empty of any significant exchange -- visit as tweet, his schedule truncated to the point of absurdity.

What upset me was not his inability to adapt to his surroundings or possibly learn from where he was -- I expected him to mold our holy city in his image -- I just couldn’t believe how willingly we molded it to suit him.

You know there’s a famous mishnah that if you are praying and a king walks in, unless you think that king is going to kill you, you keep praying [1]. Why? Because no king is ultimate, and no king should stop us from trying to get close to what is.

This came to mind as I watched the video of the 15 minutes because all the polite smiles and speeches in the world could not cover up that we had essentially stopped our prayer that day.

We had glossed over what was ultimate and precious to us in the presence of power. We had just relinquished our history, our lost families, the significant amount we’ve learned about trying to be righteous in the world, our story. We gave up so much in those 15 minutes, and yet we asked for nothing.

Rather, we allowed Trump to treat Yad VaShem like a revolving door and it made me wonder what else we were giving up without realizing it, what else significant, and foundational had eroded while we were distracted.

I appreciate that this year has been extraordinary, that we have whiplash from the amount of news and things to protest. That there has been a swell of resistance crossing generations and ethnicities in the streets on many issues: Immigration, health care, women’s rights, and these are unprecedented times. We can’t fight everything. And I know we need America if we are going to get anywhere with the matzav, the situation with the Occupation, significant challenges in Israel. And he is the president, a busy man, what are we supposed to do? Not let him in to Yad VaShem unless he promises to learn something?

And yet, I felt at that fake moment, with Jerusalem at a complete standstill, without so much as a peep from the Jewish community, it was as if Trump was holding up a giant mirror to Israel, to us the Jewish community in America, and the gap, the distance between who we say we are and who we actually were was right in front of my eyes.

2.
If we are shaking tonight it is for good cause.
Tonight we face the real King / the real Queen,
and in the presence of this holy day we collect the evidence and ask ourselves:
Is this who we are?
Is this who we want to be?

Because what concerns me, is that in this historic moment, no matter our political positions, we’ve inadvertently accepted certain rules of the game without reflection, without even knowing we’ve accepted them: Things like: Using slogans and images over engaging with moral complexity,
Concepts like: “Us vs. Them”
Or: We are only here to win, so pick the winning team, because losing is the biggest disgrace of all.

Regardless of what side we think we’re on, when the rules create a short hand like this, a shorthand that forces the kinds of distortions we saw in Jerusalem, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. By accepting rules such as these, we may score but the game is destroying us.

So tonight I don’t want to discuss the points or the fouls or even who is winning, tonight I want to change the rules, tonight I want to change our game.

Tonight I want to talk about the foundational beliefs, the premises that have eroded, premises that would make unwitting participation in such a game impossible, or least trigger more self inspection.

I want to begin to bring our teachings back to us, and remind us of the answers to the questions: Who are we in the world? Why we are here, and How must we be with one another? For if we cannot begin to answer these questions, it doesn’t matter who is in power, for we will always be chasing our own shadows.

You see, no election can define us. Only we can define us. We’ve just been giving all our attention to the wrong kinds of kings. Tonight we will begin to put the crowns back where they belong.

I bring you three ideas, three teachings:

Idea #1.  Our needs will consume us unless we recognize we are also needed.   

Because The Kitchen has a sort of cool website and a memorable name, anyone who wants to work on innovation in the Jewish world calls us.

I remember a few years ago one such consultant working for a fancy urban synagogue, with apparently an unlimited budget, called to ask me about how to market some Jewish programming to young adults (which, I’ll let you in on a little insider’s secret, is generally anyone under 55 give or take a few years).

And I remember, in the course of the conversation, she asked me, “How would you describe the ‘value add’ of Jewish life?” An innocent question, no malice intended on her part, so I am quite sure she did not expect the response I unleashed on her.

“What is the value add?” I asked, “Don’t you understand? The minute we frame being Jewish, trying to be a tzaddik / a righteous person in terms of ‘value add,’ it’s all over!”

“It would be like asking what the “value add” is of your own family! Sure, your family probably does add value to your life on some days and likely on other days they cause you nothing but pain and aggravation, but that is not even the point. The point is that the question assumes that somehow, if there was no value, less value, you would leave your family, that you are a family member because of the value it provides, and if another family or another activity that provided more value came along you would trade, but you wouldn’t and I wouldn’t because we are not only here to have needs met all the time!”

“So don’t tell them the value add,” I said, “Don’t try to fulfill their needs. Tell them the demands. Tell them that being a tzaddik / agent of righteousness is nothing less than the work of connecting heaven and earth, and it will take all of their resources and time but as a result they will know they are needed and their lives will no longer be trivial.”

(I wasn’t actually invited to participate in the second round of the focus group but I am sure it is just because I answered all the questions so well in that first call.)

And she hung up before I got a chance to tell her I was quoting one of the greatest teachers of Torah, R. Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Heschel taught that that phone call I had was inevitable, because in our world, we’ve become so overly focused on our needs, we think our whole life only consists in needing, being fulfilled, having more elaborate needs and fulfilling them. It doesn’t occur to us that there might be something else [2]. 

And he teaches that through the lens of needs the aperture of our lives has become so narrow, everything a closed circuit that always ends with us, we’ve come to see everything only as something that will or will not serve us, or we are blind to it and each other altogether [3]. 

In his words: “We ask again and again, ‘What will we get out of life? but what escapes our attention is the fundamental, yet forgotten question, what will life get out of me?" [4]. 

When we received Torah at Mt. Sinai, it was covenantal moment, a famous moment: Thunder, lightning, a mountain top.
But interestingly, no interview process.
The only thing that could count as an interview is that years and years before, when we were still in Egypt, we finally cried out under slavery. Not exactly an internship at a five star law firm.

There is a midrash / teaching that suggests that God tried to give the Torah to virtually every other nation but ours and one by one, they (reasonably) wanted a preview, and when they got the preview, they didn’t want the Torah any more because committing to Torah required way too much work, it required a radical change from the lives they were already leading [5]. 

So God gives Torah to us because we, being slaves, having nothing, didn’t look at it in advance, we just took it sight unseen. The rabbis say we accepted it out of faith but, let’s be honest, one could just as easily argue that being slaves in the middle of nowhere, we figured it couldn’t be worse than the nothing we already had. So it wasn’t that we asked for it, we just didn’t turn it down.

Not only that but in fact, Heschel points out that the minute we had a little time on our own to articulate what we really wanted at Sinai, what we really thought we needed, we skipped Torah altogether and went for something more in the golden calf section of the proverbial store [6]. 

So we see what happened at Sinai is dafka not that we got what we thought we wanted or needed, rather, what happened is that we were needed for the first time. We saw that Torah couldn’t be brought into the world without us. And in that moment we saw that we were more than our needs, we now had the responsibility for refracting the great light of Torah in any way we possibly could.

Maybe if we focused less on what we need, maybe if we shifted our horizons beyond the equivalent of winning political volleys and collecting golden statues, we would understand more ways we are needed. Maybe it would have changed that one day in Jerusalem, maybe it could have helped us have the strength to tell the story of who we once were in the world, and who we are trying to be now.

Idea #2:  Morality is not an extracurricular activity.

I had a talk with a woman who is a big activist in Oakland. She asked all about The Kitchen and I told her about you incredible people, the energy, the trust that we were building through Shabbat, through study. I told her we were talking about what is going on in the public square but I wanted us to do more ‘justice.’

“Oh,” she said, “You’re organizing. You just didn’t know it. Your problem is that you think being involved in justice is something you do outside of everything else you do. Start connecting the dots and you’ll see.”

In the popular imagination, we think that if we are indeed needed, the next step would be to make the time to isolate the moral problem we ourselves are destined to solve, raise the money to solve it, and then lecture world wide about it when we’re done.

But part of what’s been crashing down in the Trump era, a premise that has failed the stress test, is our passive understanding that our morality is somehow separate from the rest of our lives, a controlled arena to engage at will.

Rather, in the past year, as we felt under attack, we quickly realized we could not wait to carefully select where to put our moral energies. Instead we found ourselves resisting, sometimes in incomplete or incoherent ways, physically, emotionally, all at once. And through this messy resistance, and our frequent, high alert reactions that we neither could turn on nor shut off on demand, we saw how a moral challenge effects, not the moral part of us, but the all of us.

It is not that we cannot seek to answer big calls and entrenched problems. It is just that, as Heschel teaches, it is impossible to remove morality from the massive network of miniscule decisions and emotions we undergo every moment [7]. 

So to be a tzaddik (a righteous one), or to aspire to be a tzaddik, means that we accept that in everything we do, we see that we have been given tremendous power and we have the opportunity to use that power with great care. To be a tzaddik means that we accept our morality blends into everything else: who we learn from, and when we turn on our computers, and what makes us cry, and what we eat, and who we talk to, how we conduct our sex lives, and what stories we tell ourselves, and how we run our businesses, and how much we spend, and how we fight for things we care about on the streets, and at home in private when no one can see.

This is one reason why the game of the symbolic moral shorthand, is so destructive. Not only can one easily cheat, as Trump did by taking a short cut through Yad Vashem, it does not allow us to consider options other than gaining or losing points. It does not allow us to take into consideration what is happening in contexts off the field. It does not allow us to take into consideration, as Torah does, that there is no field, because all of life is the field.

Last idea for remembering who we are, why we are here and how we must treat one another:

#3:  The opposite of silence is not always protesting but also sometimes arguing.

Once my father, when he was a young rabbinic student in the 1960’s, was eating at an old school kosher restaurant on the lower east side of New York. An older chassid came in and sat down next to him. “Nu?” he said, “Let’s have an argument.” My father, who was raised in the polite Detroit suburbs stammered out, “What do you mean?”
“Tell me something you believe,” The old man said.
“Okay… I… I believe in God and following Torah,” my father said.
“Okay, so I don’t,” the man began, and they argued for the sake of arguing all afternoon.

Compare that to what happened to me a few years ago. I was teaching about perspectives on God and religion in another far away city to a well-heeled group and as always, there were disagreements in the room and they were welcome and encouraged by me.

But something changed when the topic of Israel came up. Someone had googled me and found out that I was on a J Street something. Apparently that was shorthand for something bad. I was peppered with questions by the adult students as if I was suddenly interviewing for a job and the interview was not going well. Or maybe it was a deposition. “Did I support the UN resolution?” “Did I support BDS?” and so on.  

There was a pall over the room as the class discovered the “truth” of who I was. The mood changed. It got quiet. No matter what had happened over the past few hours, I had been tested for my allegiance and had not passed.

Fast forward a few weeks. I was part of a coalition, a very left wing mission / coalition to Palestine to help re-establish a Palestinian village that had been torn down in the 90’s. I was pretty to very uncomfortable most of the time, because it is a tragic situation to see up close and because the Israeli army we were expecting is made up of kids of Israelis I know and love, many of whom wish the occupation would end as much as I do.

I was exhausted after just a very few days of moving rocks and got a ride with some Israeli activists back for Shabbat. One was asking about The Kitchen. “But of course you speak publically and often in favor of BDS?” he asked. We were smushed against each other in the back seat of a tiny car. I told him the truth, which is that we don’t. “We don’t recommend any specific policies,” I said. Not that this mattered to him or anyone else in the car.

It was quiet after that. No matter what had happened over the past few days, I had been tested for my alliance and had not passed.

And we know that I went through is minor compared to the people who are fired, who have their names dragged through the mud because of something they said or didn’t say, because of the rule of short hand in the Jewish world, because of code words that are taboo or demanded, in Israel, here.

And I am not equivocating these two experiences, either. The fact that Jewish progressives in Israel have endured smear campaigns and threats and are now being held in customs at Ben Guerion would make Ben Guerion turn in his grave. I am not equivocating but tonight I am simply marking the increasing amount of red lines, codes and shorthand that can be dispensed at any moment by anyone to make an enemy, no matter what has happened before.

I always laugh when I hear the expression that in polite company one should avoid religion and politics, because the job of religion is to bring up the stuff that no one wants to talk about: Death and wrecked relationships and violence,

Heartbreak and the kinds of injustice that everyone tolerates but knows is intolerable, religion is supposed to make everyone uncomfortable, that’s why we need religion.

But the point of religious agitation -- or politics for that matter -- is not to destroy relationships or create a million different splintering factions but rather so we might learn from one another.

Do we disagree about BDS? Maybe, maybe not. How about racism? How about talking politics in shul? Maybe we, in fact, do disagree.

But if we do, for the love of God, let’s have an argument. Let’s reject, “Us vs. Them” and slogans and grandstanding. Let’s fall in love with discussion, with the combination of narrative and ideas and beliefs once again. Because for us, a disagreement has never been a slight, only a compliment.

Not to mention, in the words of R. Arnold Jacob Wolf z”l, our position is incomplete without the other.

He wrote: “Our rabbis taught that ‘These and these are the words of the living God,’ meaning [not that the words of] Hillel and Shammai were equally true and equally false, nor that we cannot know whether the school of Rabbi Akiba or that or Rabbi Ishmael was right. Rather, what this doctrine asserts is that truth is found only when the two opposites coexist, the majority and the minority, the right and the left, I and you. …We need each other’s dissent and each other’s critique. …[Only] Distance and relation together …can make us free" [8]. 

So let’s say what we believe to be true soon and often. And then, rather than only pressing return and releasing it to a million strangers, let’s say it again, while looking into the eyes of another person, or a few people,
maybe at a table,
maybe disagreeing over Kiddush lunch with some bagels, and scotch,
maybe over time as we go through things together: births, deaths, holidays, presidents,
maybe while inviting people to come from other places so we can expand the conversation,
maybe referring to things that happened in a time not our own, places not our own, you know, just for perspective, maybe referring to our tradition,
maybe altering our ideas as we go
so we can remember who we are in the world, that we are tzaddikim, and we are needed to do nothing less than connect heaven and earth and shine the great light of Torah.

I hear they call it organizing.

 

[1] Mishnah Berakhot 5:1

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Insecurity of Freedom, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1966) see pp. 5-9.

[3] Ibid., [See also Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, (Schocken, 1991). Vol 2:308, “The Darkness of the Soul.”]

[4] Ibid., p. 5.

[5] Pesikta Rabbati 21

[6] Heschel, Insecurity of Freedom, p. 8.

[7] Ibid., p. 11.

[8] Arnold Jacob Wolf, Unfinished Rabbi, “A Theology of Activism,” (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998), p. 78.