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.

Forgiveness

Rabbi Noa Kushner // Yom Kippur 5778

1. (We are a mess)
I saw this on twitter: The worst part of meeting new people is that you have to tell your life story like it is some coherent narrative that you endorse.
And I thought that this is one thing about Yom Kippur:
On Yom Kippur it is a time our life does not have to make a coherent narrative.
We can just be a mess.
We can admit to whatever messes we’ve made.
Not the times we failed forward, just the times we failed and are still failing.
Usually we run and hide.
Usually we try to create some kind of alternative universe in work or recreation an escape, or excuse, yes?

But the rabbis teach that the real scandal is not that we ever did whatever we did, but that we kept continuing because we thought there was no other choice.

I saw a piece in the Tate by Marwan Rechmauoi called

Monument for the Living. This sculpture is a scale model of Burj El Murr building in Beirut, Lebanon. The tower was owned by members of the el-Murr family, a prominent political clan. Construction began in 1974 but it was left unfinished after the outbreak of the civil war. Originally an office block, it was only ever used as a sniper outpost. The tower is too tall to knock down and too dense to implode and so continues to dominate the skyline. It is now seen as a memorial to the internal conflict that has never really been fully resolved [1]. 

How many of us have similar such monuments taking up room in our lives?

Perhaps our ‘monument’ even began with something relatively small, a brick’s worth of conflict, something we did not address, but once we stop being honest with one another, if we don’t intervene, then we stop seeing one another, and eventually we don’t move from our places, we are alone in our darkness.

Our view becomes blocked by so many towers, even though we had a hand in building them, we come to believe they are too big for us to take down.

But David Hartman z”l taught that on this day, on Yom Kippur, the rabbis have created a world where t’shuvah, admitting we did something wrong and trying to change, this is not an aberration, it is not an embarrassment, it is not only permissible, it is expected [2]. 
Get out the jackhammers.

Because on Yom Kippur we agree to create a world together here and now where we are all equal, where we have all done something wrong (it says so right there in the book!). You may have shame but no more than the person on either side of you.

We encourage ourselves to admit to the messes we’ve made, we encourage ourselves to feel the pachad / fear in front of heaven, the fear of losing it all, so that we might remember that our decisions and choices can change our lives.

We are the ones who built those monuments and we can take them down. 

2. (Start with honesty)
There is a great conversation in the Talmud: How do you start a confession? What do you say? It is a great question, and as usual, the rabbis offer a wide variety of answers:
Rav says: You go up to the holy one and say, “You know everything, all the mysteries of the universe are revealed to you” (Right? Because saying something that is already known is less difficult)

Levi says, maybe quote Torah, can’t go wrong quoting an Author’s work
But Shmuel suggests honesty
The idea of going deep within our own hearts
And the discussion winds up not by focusing on the razzle dazzle of quoting a great verse of Torah or noting the power of God but just as Rabbi Yehuda says, “For my mistakes are too many to count and my sins too great to number" [3]. 

How do you start a confession? With the confession itself. Don’t try to wrap it up with a bow.

You see, at first glance, our tradition has little tolerance for lying to ourselves or others. There’s no halacha / law I know of that says, “When things go wrong, have a drink and repress it. Sleep on it a few months.”

In fact, the Rambam (Maimonides) teaches that if one of us hurts another, the matter is not resolved until we make material, financial restitution (yes) but we are also required to beg for forgiveness and implore the one we hurt until we are forgiven [4]. (There is a story of a rabbi who hurt another, sitting and crying on his doorsteps, he stays there until the other rabbi comes out and forgives him.)[5]

Not only that, but if you go to someone and the other person refuses to forgive, we must bring a committee of three friends to implore her to forgive us, and we must bring what I’ll call the forgiveness committee up to three times, each time begging for forgiveness. Only after three times can we say if she still won’t forgive, the other one now owns the guilt and responsibility, and is bearing a grudge.

Perhaps this is why Rambam and others teach that in order even to make t’shuvah between us and God / us and the universe -- we have to confess out loud -- not in a whisper, out loud. So that what we have done is literally amplified, there is no fixing the mess by tucking it under the rug. And as you know, our cries get more urgent by the end of the say, we not only call out, we yell out the truth, no matter how difficult it may be [6]. 

3. (Sometimes we have to throw truth to the ground)
And yet, there’s a famous midrash:
When the Holy One was about to create people, the angels gathered around and were arguing, debating.
Some wanted Adam and Eve to be created, some didn’t.
In the Torah, in Psalms, it says, “Love and truth fought with one another…” (Ps. 85:11) and so in the midrash we learn that Love itself spoke up and said, “Create them! They will perform acts of love.” But Truth rose up said, “Don’t do it! Let them not be created! For they will lie! They will be False!”

What did the Holy One do in that moment? God took truth and cast it to the ground.

And while the angels were in a commotion over what happened to truth, the Holy One created people and then said to the angels,“What are you disagreeing about? It is done. People have already been created" [7].

As much as our tradition commands us to be upfront, to not sugar coat, to be honest with ourselves and others, sometimes we have to recognize truth alone can’t get us to where we want to go. Doesn’t matter if it is 100% verified, pure, unadulterated truth. Sometimes, if we want to find a way to love ourselves and others, if we want to live and be alive, like God, we must cast exacting truth to the ground.

4. (Cables)
I was lucky enough to be in Jerusalem last summer with The Kitchen. Every day we heard from a group of mind-blowing activists, artists, rabbis and teachers. Because I was leading the group, when we got to our authentic hotel, I got a beautiful room, a room I said with one of the best views in all of Jersualem. But because our hotel was built in buildings hundreds and hundreds of years old with incredible views of the old city – in order to get there it was necessary for me to walk up stairs and down, up again and down, through gorgeous courtyards and across a rooftop and up and down again to get to my room.

I looked out of my window and across the valley was Mt. Zion and the old city.
I could see Bethlehem and the security wall that separates Israel from the west bank, all from one vantage point.
And it reminded me of a stanza of famous poem by Yehudah Amichai:

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” / vengeance machine [8]. 

I was thinking of the two mountains, our two peoples separated by a seemingly impossible valley. 
I was thinking of the security wall, the barrier down the road, sign of a conflict that can seem insurmountable.

And then, as I was going to my room the next day and I finally made all the turns to get there, I realized that once you got to the little building where my room was located, the only other thing on my floor was a one room museum, now open.

I can’t say a lot of people visited this museum, I never saw anyone go in or out, and there was no attendant, just one room with a giant open window and a huge crank in the middle of the room.

And going from the crank out the window was a cable that stretched across the very same valley, the valley I had been staring at, the same valley in the poem.

There were some signs and photographs on the walls and from what I could put together I was looking at a cable that linked from the place where I was standing, which used to be a hospital, across the valley to the old city.

A long time ago, at night, the army would use the cable and run a car on it to get supplies over the valley and to bring a few wounded soldiers at a time back to the hospital. During the day they lowered the cable so no one could see. But at night it saved lives. Clever, imaginative Israelis literally figured out how to make a lifeline from a cable. I learned that the cable was kept a secret for many years [9].

And that night I dreamed,
I saw the cable,
But instead of helping just us,
Now the cable ran between our peoples.

The cable reached the other side in my dream the same way Yehuda Amichai reached across and humanized the Arab shepherd with his words, words that required both some truth but also compassion and imagination.

And I think we can learn three lessons about t’shuvah and forgiveness (between peoples, between us and the people in our lives) from this cable and from the “reaching across” that exists in the words of the poem:

First, when there is a valley so wide and we cannot go directly through it, especially when there are lives at stake, you can’t just leave the situation, it is still incumbent upon us to find another way to cross.

We hear in lecha dodi / rav lach shevet b’emek habacha / --you’ve lived too long in the valley of tears, rise up, get up --
so the first lesson is like a command: we cannot stay in the darkness. It is forbidden for us to despair: If the valley is too dark to walk through, create another way.

Second, sometimes the best ways across are not permanent, they are only as wide as a cable, or a phrase of a poem, maybe they only work for hours at a time, maybe they cannot even withstand the public eye, maybe they must start in secret, but we don’t need them to be permanent, we just need them to hold us and whoever is wounded until we can get safely across.

We learn in midrash that the water source for all of the promised land started in the holy of holies, in the innermost chamber of the Temple, the place we are told, that when the Temple was standing, the high priest would go there just one day a year, just on this day. We learn the spring that issued from that place that was only as wide as the thinnest thread but as it sprung out, it got incrementally wider (I imagine like the Andy Goldsworthy at the deYoung Museum) and by the time it reached the entrance of the Temple Hall it was as wide as a rope and by the time it reached the entrance of the Courtyard, it was as wide as the mouth of a jug and by the time it reached the outskirts of the house of David it became a swiftly flowing brook in which all the people could immerse themselves and become pure again [10].

So don’t be fooled, in other words, by the outward appearance of a seemingly insignificant gesture. We don’t always need the complete answer at the beginning. Because we can imagine that what looks like a flimsy, barely a thread of water may grow to cleanse us all. 

The third thing we learn from the cable is that sometimes the best way across something insurmountable is not by trudging through every bit of darkness on the ground but rather, elevated, through the sky, purposefully staying above a great deal of the very real pain on the ground, leaving some of the truth buried there, cast to the ground, so we can keep our eyes on the horizon, on the goal.

In other words, less truth, more imagination.
Amichai’s poem continues:
Afterward, we, [the Arab shepherd and the Jewish father] found them, [the goat and the boy], among the bushes
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.

And so I imagined them all in the cable car, with the goat,
I imagined all of us, all of us who are seeking forgiveness from ourselves and each other, each group in our cable cars, supported by the same thin cable of imagination and compassion, elevated, gliding across the valley, looking down at the truth, laughing and crying and forgiving.

5. (Imagination)
I have one last idea of what to do with truth.
Apparently there is a new Japanese idea called Kintsugi
Which is the art of fixing broken objects, usually pottery, by drawing attention to them with visible gold seams.
This reminded me of an image in the untaneh tokef (prayer) where it says we are like shattered pottery.

R. Gordon Tucker teaches that there is only one place in torah where this image occurs and it comes from a context where a vessel that was used in a sacrifice is considered broken or unusable.

The rabbis asked, they want to know, how we can re-pure-ify vessels that were either made impure or were used in sacrifice and now we want to use them in other ways?

They discuss the techniques for using metal, wood, glass in other ways.

But then the question arises, what about earthenware, pottery? And the rabbis said that the only way to purify an impure pottery vessel is to completely break it open and to put it all back together again. To make the breaks the basis of the new, pure whole.

And what else in torah is made from the earth? People. Remember, God made us from the dust of the earth. So we learn: we mess up, we hurt ourselves, others, we are cracked, rendered impure, so we break ourselves open fully, and take the broken pieces in order to put ourselves together again [11].

The cracks are not scars, counter intuitively, they show our stability, they are proof that we are sound.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook teaches that, “What is remarkable about t’shuvah / this path of changing our ways… is that, in a sense, it allows us to rewrite the past. [He says] Teshuvah is not just about attaining forgiveness for past misdeeds. [Rather] there is a level of elevated t’shuvah through which sins are transformed into merits" [12].

Here is a last way to consider truth:
Not only on its own terms, not as something to be transcended even, but as a necessary ingredient for the good.

In other words, t’shuvah requires us to be able to see how those acts (yes even those), the material from those seemingly permanent monuments of failure, The monuments blotting out the sky, the cracks, dafka those things shall become the foundation of our goodness,
they will become the ground floor of what makes us whole and sound.

On this day, through some kind of religious catalyzing process, the very thing that brought us the most shame will become the beginning of what is most valiant and admirable in us. Starting now.

 

 

 

[1] Text from exhibition notes, Tate Modern, London.

[2] Notes from a lecture Hartman gave to Rabbis in the summer of 1991.

[3] All paraphrases from Yoma 87b.

[4] Hilchot T’shuvah 2:9

[5] Yoma 87a

[6] Hilchot T’shuvah 2:3

[7] Sefer Aggadah 13:46

[8] From Yehudah Amichai, “An Arab Shepherd Is Searching For His Goat on Mount Zion.”

[9] This is from “The Cable Car Project – Avshalom’s Way” located in the Jerusalem Hotel.

[10] Yoma 77b-78a.

[11] Gordon Tucker, Torah For Its Intended Purpose, “Shattered Pottery – Unshattered Hope” (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 2014), p. 96-7.

[12] Abraham Isaac Kook, Sapphire From the Land of Israel, trans. R. Chanan Morrison, 2013, p. 228, adapted from Olat Re’iyah, vol 1, pp. 139-141. See also Yoma 86b.

Trials

Rabbi Noa Kushner // Rosh Hashanah 5778

1. The Dove
There is a dove and she hides in the cleft of the rock where no one can see or hear her
A hidden dove, in a dark place and her beloved calls for her in shir ha shirim / song of songs, pleading for her to show her face
To sound her voice

But Rabbi Eleazar teaches that in this piece of Torah,
The dove refers to us -- all the riffraff who tried to leave Egypt together to get into the promised land
(even though we didn’t know where it was nor did we really have any idea what we were getting into) [1]

And the cleft of the rock refers to a cave, a shelter that was in the middle of the ocean
So that when we were crossing the sea from slavery to the promised land there was a place we could hide until the miracle began

And so he teaches that the dove is not hiding, rather,
from the darkness of the cave
we are witnessing the earliest beginning of one of the most profound moments of hope
The splitting of the sea and our crossing
from a certain slavery to something altogether unknown.

2.  I’m tired.
This year has made me tired.
Like probably everyone here I am worn to the bone from this year
And like everyone here I am not sure I have the strength to fight this one out
It sure feels dark, doesn’t it
We are not sure we can do this, this year, we feel we don’t even have the words
But I don’t think we have a choice.

We are either in the cleft of the rock, invisible, our song inaudible -- even to those who need to hear from us --
Or we understand we are in a cave that is indeed dark but gives us a vantage point to see a great miracle.
Some say a great miracle that we will, once again, instigate with our very voices, our singing, our crossing.
So I don’t think we have a choice.
We can be overwhelmed, burdened, hidden
or part of a turning, the turning of one of the (yes) greatest countries in the modern world, one of the greatest experiments in democracy, our America as it rises up, to greet a new era.

We can be hidden or raise our voices as we ascend
from the madreigah / level we outgrew so long ago. 
Yonati b’chagvai haselah / My dove in the cleft of the rock
b’seter hamadreigah / Hidden by the cliff / the level
Hirini et maraich / Show me your face
Hashmi’ini et koleich / Let me hear your voice [2]

“Let me hear your voice.”
No, we can’t rest now
We are just starting to wake up
The sea is about to split and we have to be there
When all the dreamers start crossing.

3. 10 tests
In the old days, in Torah, God used to administer the trials and tests.
(We also tested God many times, and I think we should get back in that habit, but that is another teaching for another time.)

God tested Abraham at the akedah / the binding of Isaac, a difficult and unsettling story. Abraham believes that God asks him to sacrifice his son and almost, almost goes through with it, some of the saddest verses in all of Torah, until the last minute when God tells him to stop.

There is no easy interpretation of this story, no way to explain it, believe me, I have tried. But what I want for us to focus on today is that the akedah / the binding was considered a test of Abraham, a difficult test, both in the words of Torah itself, and by the rabbis who came after.

Not only that, but the rabbis add that actually there were 10 tests and the akedah / the binding of Isaac was the last, ultimate test. Which sounds very official until you read the sources and realize that the rabbis can’t agree on what the other tests were. [3]

One rabbi is sure that Abraham had to live for three years underground not seeing day or night before he emerged with a full faith in God and this was a test. [4]

Many rabbis are sure that banishing Hagar must be one of the tests.
But the Rambam thinks banishing Hagar was one of the tests and banishing Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar was a whole other test [5], 
You get the idea
So while there is no agreement on what all the tests were, it did make me think

Maybe, if we accept the design constraint of ten trials, it then seems that the trials, by necessity, should be under constant review and each one must earn its place. Because the ten also work as a narrative arc of a life and one trial can change the whole list, right?

So for example, in one of my favorite lists, Rabbeinu Yonah says the last test for Abraham was NOT the akedah / binding of Isaac but rather, finding a burial plot for his wife, Sarah [6]

Changes things, right?
Remember, God promised Abraham,
“I will give you all the land, walk it, it is yours” but still, when Abraham’s wife died he had no land to call his own, no place to bury her and in grief still had to negotiate so he could buy it.
This says Rabbeinu Yonah was Abraham’s last trial. Just quietly doing what was required.

As if to say, the pyrotechnics on the mountain top still count, but the last trial is not what happens if you flirt with violence and extremes -- but rather what happens when someone you love dies and you still need to take care of their memory, you still need to see the mitzvot through,
even in your grief,
even if you are the founder of all Judaism and that same cave was promised to you by God.  

And now we understand how a trial may not look like much to those of us on the outside,  
doesn’t matter
The test just needs to be at the right level, it just needs to be something worthy of the one going through it.  
Maybe we have tests too.
And maybe if the rabbis were able to disagree and change their minds about Abraham’s top ten, maybe as we live our lives, we are also permitted to change our minds about which ten are in our lists.

Maybe the job of Rosh Hashanah is to make sure we know that each test on our list is there for a reason, that each test is earning its place.

4. Shlihut  
There’s a Chasidic story: Joseph Landau, the rabbi of Jassy in Rumania, rejected a bribe offered him by a prominent member of his congregation. With a self-satisfied air
Landau told his rebbe how he had resisted the temptation and passed the test.

When Joseph was getting ready to leave, the rebbe blessed him with the hope that he would become an honest and god-fearing man.

Joseph trembled. “Why do you bless me with honesty and a fear of heaven now?” he asked.

His rebbe answered, “The fact that you were exposed to so slight a temptation is a sign that you have not yet reached one of the upper rungs. That is why I blessed you, asking God to let you ascend and be worthy of a greater test." [7]

In the old days God used to administer the tests but increasingly, it seems that the job is at least partly ours. We test ourselves.

And if we believe with the Netivot Shalom that, “…[e]very person is called to some shlihut elyona – every person is sent into this world for a higher purpose, then we understand that through these trials we are actually achieving what we were put into this world to do.”

If that is so then the stakes for choosing the right trials are quite high. [8]

The Netivot Shalom even suggests that it is our mission to go through the trials in order to correct a specific wrong that is within us,
that our souls were sent to each of us so that we might correct precisely the area that causes us the greatest difficulties,
and have the opportunity to redeem just that area. [9]

Choosing the wrong tests then, would mean we would never be able to make such a correction and could never fulfill our spiritual mission in the world.

So, if our personal tests start feeling remarkably similar to one another,
Kind of: the same play over and over maybe with different scenery
If we know how things will end before they really start,
Or even if our tests are too tidy, like Joseph and his rejected bribe,
If we are not left wondering even a little bit if what we did was right
Maybe we have outgrown our tests,
Which means we are missing an opportunity, literally of our lifetime
And we must work to find some better tests, greater tests.

5. American Shlihut
And now I am left wondering if we Americans also collectively get ten tests.
I’m wondering: maybe if there is something in society that causes us the greatest difficulties
That maybe we are sent here collectively in this time to help to rectify it
The Chasidim believed we each have different tests in each generation.
And I believe it is true.

And similarly, if the tests we’re focused on as a society are trivial, repetitive
The same basic arguments with different fonts
Things like who tweeted what
Who used what image out of context
Who gets called what name,

We must remember,
just as we have grave responsibility in choosing our personal tests,
we also have been given the agency and ability to look honestly at what is going on in our country
We have the responsibility to consciously decide where to expend our collective spiritual, material resources.
And this is a big decision,
where to put our energies,
It is a big decision, what our tests will be.

Because these are serious times.
And we can’t afford to hide inaudibly in the rock or soothe ourselves with superficial smack downs when so much is falling apart around us.
Even though we are being assaulted on a variety of fronts
and on a variety of levels simultaneously
and even though it is understandable that in this time we would be exhausted and distracted, still we must choose our tests will be with great care.
Because the tests create the narrative arc of our country.

6. Stuck on level 5
I read that Bryan Stevenson of The Equal Justice Initiative was creating a museum to memorialize the thousands of lynchings that took place in this country. He sent out a different person to each of the specific places where these brutal acts took place, each with a clear glass bottle. Each one collected some dirt from that place, from the place where a black person was lynched. [10]

And when I read about the project, I could only think, how is it 2017 and we don’t yet have a memorial commemorating the lives of these innocent people, victims to some of the most heinous public crimes in our country’s history?

I suggest that our most acute pain comes from our understanding that, while we might just be waking up, many of our country’s problems are not new. Racism, and its generations long legacy of cycles of poverty, violence and mass incarceration have more than been around. They are systemically embedded in the laws and culture of our country for hundreds of years.  

We realize with no small amount of shame that our America has been on the same rung for a very long time, we’ve been facing the same test without ascending, without even knowing it was a test we were failing and as a result, we’ve fallen.

I’ve learned from the center for social justice at Glide how some of the intertwined problems of race, poverty and mass incarceration exhibit themselves in the black population right here in San Francisco:

So, for example, due to urban renewal projects that uprooted black populations, because of redlining by banks and a criminal justice system that permanently penalizes even minor offenders, the black population here has been decimated. Maybe you didn’t know:

The percentage of African Americans in San Francisco in the 1970’s was 13.4%.
In 2000 it was 8%
And in 2010, our last record, it was at 6%.

The African American middle class has all but disappeared. What’s left is a slim population of professionals and a sizeable population of people who rely on Glide and other social services for food, housing, violence prevention and recovery [11]. This slow decline in San Francisco is not new, if you in Gen X or a millennial, it has been going on for your entire life.

7. Honesty and Accountability
After Charlottesville a few weeks ago, Michael and I heard from Danielle Sered who runs Common Justice. She’s the real deal and with her team, she is working on an alternative track to the justice system that focuses on rehabilitation and transformation of the lives of those harmed -- without incarceration, even for people guilty of violence.

She wrote: “ …maybe [Charlottesville] is the beginning of our national reckoning with our history of racial violence. Maybe we got exactly as far as we could get without telling the truth about our past, maybe Barack Obama was the last drop of change we could squeeze out in the civil rights frame as we’ve know it, and that no further progress is possible until we …start telling the truth. I know enough about history to know that reckonings are hard, that they so often involve violence and pain and loss, and that there is no guarantee they are transformative, so I don’t say this in some rosy hopeful kind of way. But as someone who’s in the reckoning business …I also know that there is something on the other side — a dignity rooted in honesty, a kind of possibility rooted in accountability — that is better than anything this country has ever done or known. At my best moments this week, I’ve been feeling like maybe we stand a chance of getting there.”

Sered is right, if we want to ascend to a higher rung, then we must lead not with nostalgia but with honesty and accountability.

Because the problems that plague this moment, they belong to us,
and not only because are we have been pained and scandalized and victimized since the election,
But because racism is a problem we have helped to create.

And the problem belongs to us, dafka because as much as we say we want racism to go away
We secretly believe it is not really our problem to fix and so do nothing
So the problems cling to us,
because we don’t acknowledge that there are tangible ways in which we benefit by keeping things as they are.
So the problems cling to us
They say, “I know you, I remember you”
Like relatives at a party we want to leave, they cling to us
Because we are not-so-innocent bystanders,
Because racism has our number,
Because, whether we admit it or not, we’ve been involved in this for a long time.

Maybe this admission of our responsibility
is the ticket price,
maybe honesty is the entry stamp required
in order to engage with a national test this serious, a test with such profound implications for so many.

We remember now how the rebbe prayed for his chasid, that he would be blessed with honesty and a fear of heaven
Because when we seek out greater, more dangerous tests, the kind of tests that defy easy answers, tests where the outcome is uncertain -- we’ll need both.

8. Glide
And yet, in Judasim, honesty and a fear of heaven only gets us so far. In order for that honesty to count we have to show up.  

I have long believed The Kitchen could be a force in the Social Justice work of San Francisco and now with our Justice League and the new Glide partnership I feel it is possible.

Glide feeds over 800,000 meals a year, they give out 1 million clean needles to those addicted to drugs, or those who have resorted to physical abuse, they help hundreds of people with housing, free legal services, free day care, and adult literacy tutoring, not to mention free Hepititis and HIV Testing, and a rehab program. That is only part of what they do in this holy place.

We are invited with other Kitchen-ites to feed people and tutor kids once a week. In fact, we are invited to help at Glide in any myriad of ways,
I hear there is even a wonderful rabbi there now,
and their entire social justice staff is coming to our Shabbat on October 20, so the conversation is beginning.

Glide is not the whole answer, and for those of you who already get this stuff, who are already out there, kol hakavod. But for the rest of us, while Glide is not the whole answer, it will allow us to put our blue bottle coffee down for a few hours,
it will allow us to make a fixed time to connect with what is happening a just a little bit away from where we live,
It will allow us to meet and get to know some of the people that work and receive services there, to build the kinds of relationships and communities that are foundational
And it will allow us to begin to engage with what I believe is one of the great tests of our time,
a test worthy of our strongest efforts
the test of whether or not we will confront our history with race in this country,
understand how it plays out at this very moment,
and take part in what might be.

One thing I can promise: the road will be long.
Even if we engage in earnest,
the right course of action will not always be marked,
our acts will not always be definitive, let alone productive,
some of what we do will take more courage than we thought we had,
and in the short term, we most likely won’t be rewarded but rather punished in ways large and small.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Not only that, some of it will just be hard as in humiliating,
like the indignity of old Abraham having to scrounge for Sarah’s burial plot
in the very land that was promised to him,
but I am here to tell you that this all comes with the territory of engaging a worthy test.
The difficulty is a sign of a worthy test.
In other words, it will be fraught but we have to try.

The Polish Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymbroska wrote during WW2: “We know ourselves, only insofar as we have been tested.”

Timothy Snyder of the NY Times adds: Until we have been tested, there is no sense in boasting of our goodness; afterward, there is no need." [12]

So we won’t hide, not now, not when there is a test like this, not when there is the beginning of a miracle this size that’s taking shape all around us.

No we can’t rest now
We are just starting to wake up
The sea is about to split
And we have to be there when all the dreamers start crossing.

 

 

[1] Shir hashirim Rabba 2:36

[2} Song of Songs, 2:14

[3] See commentaries to Pirke Avot 5:3

[4] See Gra to Pirke Avot 5:3 with thanks to R. Scott Perlo.

[5] See Rambam to Pirke Avot 5:3

[6] Rabbeinu Yonah to Pirke Avot 5:3 (via sefaria)

[7] Buber, Martin. Tales of the Hasidim, Schocken Books, New York,1991. Volume 2, p. 110-111.

[8] Me’or Eynaim on Parashat Va-eira, with thanks to R. Sharon Brous.

[9] Netivot Shalom, Awareness, chapter 6.

[10] https://eji.org/news/eji-announces-plans-to-build-museum-and-national-lynching-memorial

[11] With thanks to James Lin, Director of the Glide Center of Social Justice.

[12] Timothy Snyder, “The Test of Nazism that Failed,” August 18, 2017.

Remembering The Dream

Rabbi Jonathan Bubis // Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778

At the end of the sixth day, God created human beings in God’s image. God blessed them, saying “Be fertile and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it. Rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the sky, and all living creatures that crawl on the earth. I give to you all the seed bearing plants on the earth, and every tree that has fruit is there for you to eat.”

The human being named Adam heard what God had said and thought to himself, “Wow, that’s pretty amazing. I’m made in the image of God, the master of the whole world! I’m going to live up to my heritage.  Just as God has created, I’m going to create too. Just as God is the Ruler of the universe, I’m going to rule over all the animals of the earth, as God instructed. And just as God has an imprint on every single thing on earth, I’m going to put my imprint on earth too.”

And that’s exactly what Adam did. He enlisted his associate, Eve to help him make their surroundings to their liking: they manicured the bushes and trimmed the trees to make them as beautiful as possible. They cut down wood to make their own private abode. They tamed all the beasts and gave them names. They spent their hours using their superior intellect and skillful dexterity to put their permanent imprint on the world. And through their efforts they felt powerful and important, like God.

But sometimes, about once a week, as they were sleeping, Adam would have a recurring dream in which in his sleep, a rib was removed from his body and fashioned into his associate, Eve. The dream would startle him awake, leaving him feeling a strong connection to Eve, and a longing for companionship. Waking up each time after the dream, he saw Eve in a new light, no longer as an associate to help him in his work, but a person he loved and cared for. With a newfound sensitivity, he became aware that every living creature was precious, and enjoined it upon himself to preserve the beautiful things around him and protect them. Heart open,  Adam also yearned to be in relationship with the One who made him.

But sometimes, about once a week, as they were sleeping, Adam would have a recurring dream in which in his sleep, a rib was removed from his body and fashioned into his associate, Eve. The dream would startle him awake, leaving him feeling a strong connection to Eve, and a longing for companionship. Waking up each time after the dream, he saw Eve in a new light, no longer as an associate to help him in his work, but a person he loved and cared for. With a newfound sensitivity, he became aware that every living creature was precious, and enjoined it upon himself to preserve the beautiful things around him and protect them. Heart open,  Adam also yearned to be in relationship with the One who made him.

But after several days, Adam forgot the dream, and continued his work to make a name for himself.

This story is based on an interpretation of the creation narratives illustrated in Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s masterpiece, Lonely Man of Faith. Soloveitchik asserts that the two creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis offer two contradictory images of Adam. The first, which he calls Adam I or the “majestic man,” is the one who’s sole mission is to produce and conquer. His relationships with others are transactional in nature, focused on helping him achieve his goals. The second, which he terms Adam II, or “redemptive Adam,” centers his existence through spiritual companionships with the others in the garden, and service to the One who put him in the garden in the first place. Adam II is the psychologically, spiritually oriented person whose soul is nurtured in genuine relationship with others.

Two images of Adam, both found within each and every one of us. And the alarming thing for me is, I came to the conclusion that I am all too often Adam I.

How so? Who is Adam I? Adam I represents the part of us that wants to have things “just ‘right’”; Adam I is dominant when we have a specific picture in our head of what something should look like and we go to great lengths to manifest that picture, even if it means neglecting our needs, even if it means ignoring others, or using them for purely utilitarian purposes. It’s when we focus on the product, the result, the outcome, oftentimes to the exclusion of all else.

How did many of us come to have such strong Adam I tendencies? By the way, before I continue, Adam, according to rabbinic commentary, was originally both male and female, so Adam as a metaphor can and should be applied to people of all genders.

Ok, why are so many of us so Adam I-like so much of the time? Psychologists tell us that it starts in our childhood. From a young age, parents and teachers urge us to become high achievers. We learn early on that the way to gain success and the way to please others is by delivering high-quality results. The only way to get the gold star and the pat on the shoulder is to get the grade.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Working hard and accomplishing much are valuable traits, for sure.

But they also sometimes come at a cost. It can often mean that we who are more like Adam I, tie our inherent worth to what we achieve. And when we don’t achieve our high standard, it can lead to feelings of never being good enough.

Being like Adam I can also lead to shutting people down, or shutting them out. When our focus is on the work, on doing, it can mean we think less about the people we do the work with, or the people who wait for us after work.

I’m here to publicly admit tonight that I am often Adam I. I specifically notice this tendency while doing the work I love to do most, creating. As many of you know, I like to make music and do creative writing, stuff like Storahtelling, which you should totally come to see tomorrow morning, by the way, the actors are fabulous.

When I am creating and something comes out that is not “just so,” it hurts my sense of self, because sometimes my self-worth is tied to what I produce.

And what’s worse, when I am creating with others, and someone else does something that is not exactly like the picture I have in my head of what it should be, I respond in ways that may be hurtful. Like that time I joined forces with my sister to write a parody for a family member’s birthday and we had “creative differences.”  Even though I knew in the back of my head that the whole point was for us to come together, have a fun time, and celebrate family, I ended up responding in an overly harsh way - because in the moment the rhyme scheme in that one line in the parody was the most important thing, so much so that I lost sight of the person sitting right in front of me. Sometimes my instinct tells me to perfect the product, while the people producing it are secondary.

It’s a part of who I am that I am not proud of, and that I’m working on. And my guess is there may be others in this room who struggle with the same inclinations.

And you know what? We see this trend in society at large, too - don’t we? We see it schools that are curriculum focused more than student-focused, schools that care more about what is being taught than who is being taught, more about what students achieve than who students are. No wonder we see so many students cheating on tests and plagiarizing on papers. If it’s the result that matters, who cares how they get there?

We see this same trend in companies and organizations that care about the product and the profitmore than the producers. That’s why we hear so many horror stories in the news about things like the deplorable working conditions of factory workers for clothing manufacturers. If the jeans are cheaper, who cares about the people in the dangerous factories who made them?

And yes, we see this trend even in our beloved non-profit organizations, sometimes more than for-profit companies. David La Piana, a leading nonprofit strategy expert, writes about something he calls the “nonprofit paradox,” the tendency for some organizations to “recreate within their own organizational cultures the problems they are trying to solve in society.”

Like the environmental organization fighting to save forests and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while mailing hundreds of paper fundraising solicitations and taking dozens of unneeded flights for meetings. Or the nonprofit whose mission it is to eliminate child abuse that has an abusive, power hungry CEO.

People who work in the nonprofit sector are often referred to as ‘servants’ of the community. Yet all too many of them are not served themselves with living wages, reasonable benefits and retirement packages.

You know, it tells us in the Talmud that a Torah scholar who is not tocho k’varo, who’s inside doesn’t match her outside, should not be considered a true Torah scholar. Meaning, our outer expressions of righteousness, ought to match our inner virtuousness.

How can do we make ourselves, our schools, our companies, our organizations tocho k’varo? How can our outer appearances of order, creativity, and moral fortitude match what’s happening on the inside as well, when the curtain is pulled open? How do we actually care about what we say we care about?

I think we’ll have to start by bringing more of Adam II’s spirit into our lives.  The one who worries less about achieving, but thrives by being in relationship. Adam II represents those parts of us that not only worry about what’s in our heads, but also wants to explore what’s in people’s hearts and tap into their souls.

How do we bring more of that Adam II consciousness into our lives? According to Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar, it starts with what we teach our children.  In his Eli Talk on compassion, Rabbi Held asserts that children must be taught, and teachers must truly believe, that caring for others is as important, if not more important, than what they achieve. Parents should be taught to instill the notion in their children that “how much kindness you do is so much more important than how well you do on your SATs or whether you end up at an Ivy League School.” Dr. Bruce Powell, the Founder and Head of De Toledo Jewish Community High School in Los Angeles, puts it this way. “I don’t care if you’re a PHD, if you’re a SOB.”

One of our good family friends really took this to heart for her children. She made up a system with her kids called sticker-tunities. This is how it worked. The kids would get a sticker, not if they did their chores, not if they did their homework, but if they performed a random act of kindness for someone else, unprompted.  Now that’s what I like to call parenting.

Feeling compassion for others and expressing that in our actions should be valued just as much, or even more than what we produce.We are seeing a turn towards this in business. According to Paul Argenti, Professor of corporate communications and one of the most influential writers on business ethics, “Corporate Social Responsibility is now in high demand by investors, customers, and employees of large companies.” Meaning, corporations are thinking more about how they treat people working for them, how they contribute to their communities and how they affect the planet, in addition to how much profit they make. They’re also increasingly concentrating on building an attractive company culture for their employees, with catered meals and yoga classes, community events and a team-oriented work environment with fewer levels of hierarchy. Ok, yes: these changes do also happen to be good for business. But at least I would like to think they come from a genuine call for more ethical behavior.

But so how do we truly change the culture in our workplaces, in our homes, and in our hearts to one in which we really care?

We remember the dream that Adam once had, that we are in fact connected to each other on a very fundamental level. That we come from the same source and are made of the very same stuff.

We are called to remember that dream once a week, on a day called Shabbat. Shabbat, says Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, is the day we become aware of the dream of a better reality, one that recognizes the inherent dignity and divinity of every human being. On that day, as Rabbi Sharon Brous puts it, “we reawaken the part of ourselves that may have forgotten that we are more than our work.”

Don’t get me wrong- I’m not saying work is a bad thing. In fact, we are commanded to work for six days. Working and creating are part of recognizing that we are made in God’s image.  But, to be honest, I think we in San Francisco and in the United States, get the whole work thing. We got Adam I down.

Yes, we’re charged to work like God; but we’re also told to rest like God. On the seventh day, Torah tells us that God shavat, vayinafash, God “ceased, and rested,” or literally, God ceased and re-nefeshed, re-ensouled. Shabbat is our opportunity to remember our souls and the souls of everyone around us. Shabbat is our reminder to take with us for the rest of the week that everyone has a divine spark.

So in the midst of our small interactions with people during the week, let’s build a consciousness to pay attention to the person right in front of us more than the idea in our heads.

Let’s eat dinner with our families and really talk, and resist our urge to think about the to-do-list.

Let’s strike up a small conversation with the barista at the counter or our Lyft driver and treat them like a human being, not just someone we’re talking to for a particular purpose

Let’s express appreciation for the work our co-workers are doing, and when our idea on a project is not gelling with theirs, add to their ideas instead of shutting them down.

Let’s commit to having this year be the year of alignment – bringing together Adam I and Adam II. This Rosh Hashanah, on the anniversary of the sixth day of creation when God created the human being, Let’s become human-centered and design our communities to celebrate people in addition to the programs or products we make.  Because when we do, that’s when we will stop associating our self-worth with what we accomplish. That’s when we will no longer feel that we’re never good enough. That’s when we will know that who we are and how we treat others, is more important than what we achieve. That’s when we will remember the dream.

Hurricane Harvey

Fellow Kitchenites,

My heart is hurting as I watch and read news from Houston and Southeast Texas. My mom and my aunt grew up in Houston. I don't have any family there anymore, but I've spent a lot of time there with family and friends. Through youth group events, I've visited a dozen synagogues in the area. I have many friends from summer camp who live there.

The scale of it is hard to understand. One description I read that I think explains the scope: The Houston metro area takes about four hours to drive across; it is the size of Delaware; it has three times the population of Manhattan; and almost all of it is underwater. It is a vibrant city, with a powerful New Orleans diaspora culture, NASA, industries that drive America, and thriving immigrant cultures and cuisines from every corner of the world.

I hope some of you who are able will join me in donating to any number of organizations working on relieving the suffering on the ground:

  • You can donate directly to Red Cross of the Gulf Coast, doing tons of frontline work. 
  • You can help out the Texas Diaper Bank, which does exactly what it sounds like. 
  • You can help out Jewish Family Service of Houston, doing great on-the-ground work right now, operating out of the second floor of the director's flooded home. 
  • You can help out my old summer camp, Greene Family Camp, which is housing refugees right now; they are asking for people to send Wal-Mart gift cards so that people being housed there can pick up essentials. Purchase them here and send them to gfc@urj.org.

Thanks to everyone who can afford to help out, and to everyone keeping the people of Southeast Texas in their prayers, thoughts and hearts.

David A.M. Wilensky

Social Justice Rabbi at Glide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prophecy 2.0

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

1. Prophecy 1.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America

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

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

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

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

We were so sure of the outcome.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yes, black lives matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 


 

[1] New Israel Fund letter, 11.9.16.

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

[3] Ibid., p. 314.

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

[5] Ibid. p. 36.

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

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

[8] Leviticus 19:18

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

 

I Wish It Were Tisha B'Av

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

Rabbi Noa Kushner, November 9, 2016

________________

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

Broken

Rabbi Noa Kushner
Yom Kippur Morning 5777
“Broken“

 

1. Graves

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

This has been going on a long time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. We hide and come out 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Breakout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Say it

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

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

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

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

It is not too late.

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Bereishit Rabbah 34:4

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

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

 

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

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

When Is Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

On Teshuvah

Rabbi Jonathan Bubis
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777
“On Teshuvah”
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RISK

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are we not finding? What have we lost?

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

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

.....

READ THE WHOLE DRASH HERE.

 

Chukat

Hannah Ellenson / June 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi David Rosenn explains:

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

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

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

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

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

Who Do You Think You Are?

Noa Kushner / May 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will be what I will be

You will be holy because I am holy

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

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

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

Unwitting

Noa Kushner / March 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon / Congregation B’nai Jeshurun

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

Members: Free
Non-Members: $36



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

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

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


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

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

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


Saturday, January 30
7:00 PM, Private home

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

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