Friday, March 30, 2018

Brokenness and Redemption: A Message for Pesach

After our pre-Pesach haircuts this year, Mel and I finally had a few moments to explore the vintage shop next door to Universal Bread. It was a fabulous and quirky little place with classic cufflinks, long wool skirts, and a variety of bubble gum pink attire. In a small corner, Mel found a beautifully cut, American-made blazer that she had to have. It had a slight tear in the lining, but it didn’t matter -- it was perfect.  When we reached the register, the awesome owner said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take 20% off.” In truth, we didn’t care, but when something is broken, torn, or imperfect, we all know that its value declines, even when it is the perfect fit.
I thought about this recently in regard to a recent midrash I was exploring at shul this past week. In Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, commenting on parashat Tzav, the rabbis offer an interesting approach to “brokenness,” and how it impacts our value. In this particular parasha, we learn all about the details of the olah offering, and how Aaron and his sons must prepare the sacrifice. However, with the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish people needed to undergo a transformative shift in how we offer sacrifices. The tradition tells us God does not want the blood of blemishless animals any longer. God now desires the service of the heart, or prayer, instead of the service of the physical altar. The Midrash takes this idea even further -- God desires a different kind of prayer, the prayer of the broken heart.
King David provides the words that describe the shift in God’s desired offerings for atonement: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God, You will not despise a broken and crushed heart.” (Psalm 51:17). After the sin committed with Bat Sheva, King David knows that animal sacrifice and pro forma prayer is insufficient. God wants us to offer ourselves up with broken hearts and contrite spirits. The Midrash takes this concept even further:

אמר רבי אלכסנדרי: ההדיוט הזה אם משמש הוא בכלים שבורים גנאי הוא לו, אבל הקב"ה כלי תשמישו שבורים, שנאמר(שם לד): קרוב ה' לנשברי לב. (שם קמז): הרופא לשבורי לב. (ישעיה נז): ואת דכא ושפל רוח זבחי אלהים רוח נשברה לב נשבר.

Rabbi Alexandri said, “If an ordinary person uses broken vessels, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy one Blessed be He are all broken, as it is said “God is close to the broken hearted.” (V. Rabbah 7:2)

We live in a human world that demands the appearance of perfection and wholeness at whole moments. We are expected to be fully present parents while also being the employee who takes the extra steps to ensure excellence. And we are expected to look well-rested and be emotionally balanced while doing so. We are expected to be responsible with our time and money, but take fabulous vacations that enrich our lives. We try and make our way through a world of impossible demands with unfailing grace and equanimity. We are supposed to be superhuman, whole, put together and complete.
But God created us to be human partners in the work of creation, renewal, and repair. That relationship cannot take shape if we are dishonest about who we are, and we do not make space for God to come into our lives and our work. Brokenness is not a bug, it is a feature of who we are. Brokenness makes space for others, most notably the Divine, to come into our lives. The wider the gaps  -- the greater the fault lines -- the greater the room is for partnership and the presence of others. The smaller our gaps are, the more narrow the entree is for real connection. Indeed, we know in Hebrew that the word for narrow spaces is “Mitzrayim,” or Egypt.
As we celebrate Pesach, Chag HaHerut, the Festival of Freedom, let us free ourselves from the bondage of the narrow places created through arrogance and a false pretense of having it all figured out. Only when we allow ourselves to be truly broken can we know the liberation that comes from being in authentic relationship with God. Only when we offer up our broken and contrite hearts can we be forgiven for our faults and our sins. This Passover, let us allow ourselves to be free by allowing ourselves to be honest, open, and exposed. We can all imagine quite easily what it feels like to be stuck in narrow and closed off spaces. This Pesach let us give God the sacrifices that make us free: giving up on the hardness of our heads, our hearts, and our false personas to taste the liberation of an honest, complex, and shattered life.

Chag Sameach

Friday, January 26, 2018

Parashat BeShalach: Nostalgia and its Antidotes

      One of the most difficult parts of coming on as a rabbi in Waterville was the stories of the past. Part of my initiation as a religious and civic leader was learning about the glory of Main Street in the 1960's, and the packed synagogue on High Holidays when congregants would pledge significant sums. For many, though not all, the past was glorious and robust.  The present was a disappointment, and visions of a brighter future were inevitably naive. The weight of what Waterville once was is a challenge that is shared by all of its leaders, and can often be emotionally taxing. The greatest gifts I get are from select older congregants who will tell me that the romanticized version of the past are not quite true, and that Hebrew school has always been a challenge, as was maintaining Shabbat standards, and getting a minyan on Friday night. Those moments of candor, and the challenges revealed by old synagogue notes, let me know the difference between recollections colored by vaulted nostalgia and a faithful reports of the past.
       Idealizing the past is a human problem -- it is ancient and primal. This week's Torah portion, Parashat BeShallah, reveals just how engrained this behavior is. Right after the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites lose faith almost immediately (Exodus 16:2-3)

2The entire community of the children of Israel complained against Moses and against Aaron in the desert.בוַיִּלּ֜וֹנוּ (כתיב וילינו) כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל עַל־משֶׁ֥ה וְעַל־אַֽהֲרֹ֖ן בַּמִּדְבָּֽר:
3The children of Israel said to them, If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to deathגוַיֹּֽאמְר֨וּ אֲלֵהֶ֜ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל מִֽי־יִתֵּ֨ן מוּתֵ֤נוּ בְיַד־יְהֹוָה֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּ֨נוּ֙ עַל־סִ֣יר הַבָּשָׂ֔ר בְּאָכְלֵ֥נוּ לֶ֖חֶם לָשׂ֑בַע כִּי־הֽוֹצֵאתֶ֤ם אֹתָ֨נוּ֙ אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה לְהָמִ֛ית אֶת־כָּל־הַקָּהָ֥ל הַזֶּ֖ה בָּֽרָעָֽב:

How appealing and perfect slavery was. There were meat, bread, fruits, and vegetables. The Israelites claimed that they were sated at every moment. They do not talk about the whippings, of being worked to the point of exhaustion, or the killing of their sons. Rather, they complain to Moses and Aaron, "In Egypt, we knew what was what and were were fed. We knew what was coming, the structure of the day, and we were kept physically alive. Yeah, we are free, and God provides us with food, but it was not as good as what our masters gave us in Egypt. We are not certain of what tomorrow will bring, and our faith will not let us be open to what God has in store for us. We prefer the consistency of an oppression we know to a liberation that opens us up to a future we cannot imagine."

I do not doubt that there were positive moments in Egypt, or that America in its post World War II heyday provided opportunities, wealth, consistency, and comfort that we do not enjoy today. But it was not perfect, and there are reasons why we left much of the past behind. Waterville would be better with the factories and shops that fed our incredible community.  That said, I do not want to return to an age of social rigidity that normalized and entrenched noxious racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Much of the social and economic change our country has encountered since that time has been deleterious, but I would not relinquish the freedom and dignity that so many of us enjoy today as the result of hard won struggles. Learning from the past and valuing its advantages is warranted and necessary. Reifying and glorifying the past as an Eden lost can destroy nations, communities, and families.

But when times are tough, or not exactly what we want them to be in the present, the siren call of nostalgia can be hard to resist. What is the antidote? Storytelling, the ultimate Jewish pastime. In his piece in the Guardian, Mohsin Hamid asserts, "...storytelling offers an antidote to nostalgia. By imagining, we create the potential for what might be. Religions are composed of stories precisely because of this potency. Stories have the power to liberate us from the tyranny of what was and is." 

Stephanie Coontz in New York Times provides a more balanced approach to nostalgia, but still warns of its risks, "In personal life, the warm glow of nostalgia amplifies good memories and minimizes bad ones about experiences and relationships, encouraging us to revisit and renew our ties with friends and family. It always involves a little harmless self-deception, like forgetting the pain of childbirth. In society at large, however, nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the good things in our past. But memories, like witnesses, do not always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We need to cross-examine them, recognizing and accepting the inconsistencies and gaps in those that make us proud and happy as well as those that cause us pain.

In my work as a historian and in my relationships as a friend, teacher, wife and mother, I have come to think that the most useful way to understand the past, and make it work for you, is to look at the trade-offs and contradictions that, however deeply buried, can be uncovered in every memory, good or bad. These people [she studied] didn’t repudiate, regret or feel guilty about their good memories. But because they also dug for the exceptions and sacrifices that lurked behind their one-dimensional view of the past, they were able to adapt to change. Both as individuals and as a society, we must learn to view the past in three dimensions before we can move into the fourth dimension of the future."

At the core of the religious imagination is that the future can be different than what we have known.  To draw wisdom from our Christian siblings, "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for." (Hebrews 11:1-2) Our ancestors give us wisdom, but at their best, they give us the faith to imagine a more perfected and holy future.

That faith does not come from miracles in the Jewish tradition.  Clearly, the miracle at the Sea of Reeds did not inspire a long lasting faith. Even though the exodus inspired a faith in God and Moses, it was momentary. As Maimonides wrote, "“Those who have faith because of miracles, their hearts are not true” (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, ch. 8, halakah 1). True faith -- faith in ourselves and potential for the future -- comes from the daily commitment to God, Torah, and Mitzvot. It is expressed in the daily reaffirmation in our covenant, our tradition, and their claims on our behavior. It is grueling and profoundly unsexy.

Storytelling and the faith born of daily commitment -- these are they keys to redemption, and to a future of accountability and promise. May we carry these with us as we imagine a better future together as Jews and Americans.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Yom Kippur Sermons 5778

Happy to share my Yom Kippur Sermons for 5778:

Kol Nidre: Choosing Life, Choosing Love

Yom Kippur Day: Dear Nitzan and Hadas

A happy, sweet, and fulfilling new year for all!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

U'natana Tokef: Thoughts on Chaos, Order, and Justice


    There is something so beautiful, chilling, and true about the u'natana tokef prayer. Its words are so resonant that Leonard Cohen transformed these ancient Hebrew words into contemporary secular liturgy:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many will pass and how many will be created?

Who will live and who will die?

Who in their time, and who not their time?

Who by fire and who by water?

Who by sword and who by beast?

Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)
avert the severity of the decree.  

Sometimes we are foolish enough to think that we can control our lives, and even more arrogant to believe that we can control our deaths.  Even with the best planning, the deepest pockets, the finest medical care, and the healthiest diet, none of us know when we will die or how exactly it will happen. Advanced directives can be ignored, a routine commute on a beautiful day can go terribly wrong, and some diseases simply cannot be avoided. Life is unpredictable, and death is the most extreme expression of the chaos that defines our time on earth. All of us weave veils for ourselves that separate us from the chaos that defines our mortality. We fabricate those veils with routines, rituals, and laws that provide a sense of predictability and stability to our lives. Yet, every once in a while, something -- a death, a birth, a tragedy -- pierces that veil, and exposes us to our utter powerlessness in the face of  mortality. U'Natana Tokef reminds us of what lies behind our veils of daily denial.

But this prayer, and the High Holiday season, are not merely about chaos, unpredictability, and denial.  If they were, there would be no point to life, not to mention our faith and festivals. The liturgy gives us power and hope in the face of this chaos. We can reclaim our power and avert the severity of the chaos of our lives through repentance, prayer, and justice work.

Repentance: We do not need to be the people we were yesterday tomorrow.  We can change, we can return to our better selves and God, and we can improve. We have control over our character. We need not surrender to a dictatorship of the past. We can move closer to the people we want to be by returning to a purer and more Divine version of ourselves.

Prayer: The Jewish people gave humanity the gift of the week through Shabbat. Through our cycles of prayer, we give order to days, weeks, months, and years.  We come together in supportive and loving communities. We resist the chaos of endless labor by giving ourselves the opportunity to rest and reconnect. Shabbat is an island of eternity that breaks up the chaos of the work week, and allows us to feel the joys and power of royalty.

Tzedakah: Human beings all have the capacity to cause suffering, pain, and greater chaos in the world. Through tzedakah (justice work), we use our power to make the world a more equitable and reasonable place. Yes, some of us were born with more privilege and blessings than others. We cannot control the endless stream of natural disasters that befall us. But we all have the choice about how we put our blessings and privileges to use. Every time we tithe, clothe, donate, protect, shelter, make space and speak out for others, we change the order of the world. We refuse to accept the world we inherited for what it is. None of us choose our station in life at birth.  However, we all choose how many of our blessings and how much of our power we employ to make the world more just, kind, and bearable for others.

This season is about recognizing how small we are in the face of the universe and the Divine. But after we acknowledge the chaos, we also recognize the considerable power we have to mitigate the effects of that chaos -- to avert the severity of the decree through personal and communal action. 

In the year to come, let us reclaim our power in the ways that our liturgy describes, confronting the overwhelming challenges of our world with joy, gratitude, and purpose.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Rosh HaShanah Sermons 5778

Proud to share my Rosh HaShanah sermons from Waterville this year:

Rosh HaShanah Day 5778: "The Dignity of Difference"

Monday, September 4, 2017

High Holidays in Waterville 5778

Please join us for the festivals of Tishrei! 
All are welcome and tickets are not required!

Rosh Hashana:
Erev Rosh Hashana Services: Wed, Sept 20, 6pm
Rosh Hashana Community Meal: Wed, Sept 20, 7pm

(RSVP required! $25/adult; kids are free; cost is no barrier)
First Day Services: Thurs, Sept 21, 9:30am
Family services will be available

Tashlich: Thurs, Sept 21, 1:30pm at Thayer Park Boat Landing (across from Thayer Hospital)
Second Day Services: Fri, Sept 22, 9:30am

Yom Kippur:
Kol Nidre: Fri, Sept 29, 6:20pm

Yom Kippur Services: Sat, Sept 30, 9:15am (Reform, student-led in social hall downstairs, traditional service upstairs)
Family services will be available in synagogue classroom

Yom Kippur Mincha and Ne’ila Services: Sat, Sept 30, 5pm
Break the Fast (Dairy Potluck): Sat, Sept 30, 7:15pm at Beth Israel (Kelsey St. entrance)
(The Waterville Sukkah will be located next to the Foss building on the Colby campus)
Joint Potluck and Services in the Sukkah: Fri, Oct 6, 5:30pm
Bagel Brunch in the Sukkah, Sat, Oct 7, 10am
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah:
Shemini Atzeret Services and Yizkor, Thurs, Oct 12, 10am
at Beth Israel
Simchat Torah Pizza-Making Party and Celebration (Hebrew school at shul), Thursday, Oct 12, 4pm

Friday, August 25, 2017

Reflections on Charlottesville and Jersey City for Elul

“Jew will not replace us.” These words were chanted by hundreds of people in Charlottesville at a massive neo-Nazi rally in our country. My suspicion is that the older folks in our congregation are less surprised by the presence of antisemitism. Both my grandparents and parents experienced this hate, and the intersection of antisemitism with bigotry against other minorities. One of the most important stories my grandparents told me about their past was when my grandfather was stationed in South Carolina for army training before he entered combat in World War II.
Having come from Jersey City, my grandparents were not used to segregated buses, but they were introduced to this expression of systemic bigotry quickly. They walked on a bus early in their time in South Carolina and by habit, walked to the back of the bus. The driver stopped them, and told them that as white folks, they needed to sit up front. Neither of my grandparents were activists in the traditional sense of the word, and were not interested in taking public action or drawing attention to themselves.  But they were also keenly aware of the fact that they were Jews and that their families were being slaughtered en masse in Europe because of their “racial inferiority.” They continued to walk to the back of the bus and just told the driver to go. It made no sense to fight genocidal racism in Europe and feed it back at home. When my grandparents returned to New Jersey after the war, my grandmother became the secretary to one of the first tenured African-American professors at Jersey City State College, the artist Ben Jones. My grandfather became a public school teacher in Newark.
What impresses me about my grandparents’ legacy is that they never sought or received public recognition for much of anything they did. But they passed their stories onto their grandchildren -- from freeing concentration camps abroad, to pursuing justice at home, and sustaining Jewish communities that animated and transmitted their values. There is a deep wisdom to this approach to justice work. I moderated a panel with Tilar Mazzeo that centered on her book, “Irena’s Children,” about a Polish woman who saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust. If Irena’s actions had been public, both she and those children would have been killed. The truly courageous work is not televised or posted on Instagram. It is done through living lives of integrity and quiet sacrifice, and through a deep confidence in who you are and what you believe. It is done by putting your body between the vulnerable and the violence that is bound to kill them. It is rarely public, but no doubt, God takes note.
We are approaching Elul, our month of repentance and spiritual preparation before the High Holidays. Let us remember two things: 1) Our actions matter, and more often than not, the greatest mitzvahs we do are seen only by God. 2) The value of synagogue life is crucial. Our community allows these stories can be passed from generation, not only as a source of inspiration, but also of protection. Our elders have an obligation to share their stories, and our youth have the obligation to hear them. Many young Jews are just experiencing antisemitism for the first time, and it is often a shock. Knowing that our elders had the strength and integrity to stand tall as Jews is an important source of strength in fighting the impulse to hide and flee for a false sense of security. Let us take this month as time of reflection, gratitude, and taking stock of who we are not only as individuals, but as a multi-generational community that must stand tall not only for ourselves, but also for those who share in our struggle.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it be God’s will, and L’Shanah Tovah u’mitukah (A Happy and Sweet New year!)