Thursday, March 16, 2017

Maine State House Benediction: March 16, 2017

Dear God, please bless this gathering of legislators, may you protect them and guide them in your ways.  May your teachings be close to their hearts, and may they be inspired to follow them. We stand in this moment between the Jewish festivals of Purim and Passover, two celebrations of redemption. Two festivals that celebrate the survival of a religious minority facing persecution and unjust treatment by their fellow citizens. Two holidays that remind us of the special moral obligations of those who know the pain of narrow places and exclusion. Two holidays that make us recognize the privilege of receiving revelation from a God who places upon us the highest moral standards to protect the interests of the most vulnerable. At this moment let us recall two verses from the Biblical tradition that speak to our better angels and our communal responsibility to speak for the voiceless.  

We learn in Deuteronomy 10:18-19:

 עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם, וְאַלְמָנָה; וְאֹהֵב גֵּר, לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה.
18 God executes justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the foreigner, in giving him food and clothing.
יט  וַאֲהַבְתֶּם, אֶת-הַגֵּר:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
19 Love the foreigner; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

And God reminds us again in the Book of Zachariah, Chapter 10:9-10:

 כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, לֵאמֹר:  מִשְׁפַּט אֱמֶת, שְׁפֹטוּ, וְחֶסֶד וְרַחֲמִים, עֲשׂוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו.
9 'Thus God said: Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassion every man to his brother;
י  וְאַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם גֵּר וְעָנִי, אַל-תַּעֲשֹׁקוּ; וְרָעַת אִישׁ אָחִיו, אַל-תַּחְשְׁבוּ בִּלְבַבְכֶם.
10 and do not oppress the widow, nor the fatherless, the foreigner, nor the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.

Our challenge and privilege in this world is to be agents of love and justice in every sphere we inhabit.  May this assembly use its voice, its power, and the treasures of the people of Maine to alleviate pain, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and welcome the foreigner. America is a country blessed with a unique mission in this world, showing fidelity to our civic traditions and drawing inspiration from our faiths. May we all rise to the occasion on this day, being vessels of holiness, justice, and compassion for the people of Maine and our great country.

And let us say, Amen.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Exodus and Leviticus: The Protests and the Day After

      What would Judaism be without the Exodus?  A narrative that details the sorrows of the downtrodden and the joys of liberation, the Exodus from Egypt is a cornerstone of Jewish identity. We know from sociological data that even when Jews have given up all other forms of observance, the Passover seder remains a part of their lives.  The story can be addictive and nourishing, a tale of good and evil when good prevails against all odds. The Exodus makes for a fantastic movie -- we imagine ourselves almost always as Moses, courageous, victorious, and righteous.  What follows the Exodus, however, fails to compel audiences as much as the journey through the Sea of Reeds.

      After we are freed from the great external evil of Pharaoh, we need to face ourselves and confront the difficult freedom of the wilderness.  In an act of true love and commitment, God gives us a way to deal with the vicissitudes and chaos of the desert: Torah.  We celebrate this moment with Shavuot, a holiday far less known than Passover.  On Shavuot, we cleanse ourselves with a vegetarian diet instead of feasting on lamb (like on Passover), and we stay up all night study the statues, details, and nuances of Divine Law. Revelation -- and the restrictions that come along with it -- does not provide the same drama and allure as the Exodus. I know of many more Jews who will gladly sing the songs of the Passover seder than will joyously study and observe the minutia of kashrut.
    But great dramatic narratives cannot alone sustain a great nation or movement. There needs to be guidance in the wilderness to create, order, and unify a diverse people. Discipline and restraint are essential for crafting just solutions to inevitable conflicts.  Leviticus may not be as sexy as Exodus, and Shavuot less famous than Passover.  But Jewish civilization could not continue without their complementary contributions.
     The same is true with our social justice movements.  Protests are our great narrative actions. However, without the discipline of voting strategically in every election, the restraint required of compromise across difference, and the requirement to donate to effective organizations and leaders, the protest movement will never bear fruit.  A movement without law is ineffectual and inert; a movement without narrative is soulless and bereft of galvanizing principles.  The next four years will require effective political mobilization in order to preserve the rule of law and the health of our democracy.  We've protested. Crying out to God is important.  Telling the story is essential.  But then there is the time to be pragmatic, practical, and productive.  We must have the discipline to vote when it counts (which is always!), to make compromises on smaller issues to preserve our most cherished institutions, and be willing to give our time and treasure to actualize our most deeply held and most imperiled values.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Beth Israel Hanukkah Party 2016

Join Beth Israel Congregation for a raucous Hanukkah Party this year!  We will be celebrating together on Tuesday, December 27, 2016 from 5-7 pm.  Want to help?  Here is how:
  • Bring a vegetarian/dairy dish to the potluck for dinner!  There will be plenty of latkas and sufganiot (doughnuts), so healthy, wholesome food is a plus!
  • Help us make latkas!  Come by the Beth Israel Congregation kitchen starting at 1:00 pm on December 27th to help us fry up a bunch of latkas!
  • Bring your friends! This is a great time to introduce our community to our synagogue and traditions.
  • Bring your own hanukkiah and candles so we can all light together!

Chag Urim Sameach חג אורים שמח!  Happy Hanukkah.  Cannot wait to see you there!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

White House Hanukkah Benediction

Thank you, Mr. President, Mrs. Obama. It is such an honor to be here today to teach, bless, and represent Waterville, Maine in the White House. Adam HaRishon, the first human, stood, shivering in the dark, frigid expanse. The days were becoming shorter, dimmer, colder in a way he had never experienced before, and he wondered: Is this what the world will always be? Our rabbis teach us that Adam prayed for eight days, and when the winter solstice passed, the days became longer, lighter, and warmer once again. Hanukkah is a festival that teaches us that it is always darkest before the dawn, and it is not foolish or naive to hold onto hope.

 Of course, because Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, we do not agree on a singular reason for why we celebrate. Hanukkah also teaches us about the necessity of rebellion. The Maccabees refused to accept tyranny, and were willing to sacrifice everything in order to retain their integrity as faithful Jews. They knew the injustice of dictatorship, and the danger of one human sovereign undermining the primacy our laws. As Jews, our faith is rooted in a legal system based on the foundational belief that all human beings are created equal, and created equally in the Divine Image.

We know the values and example we inherited from the Maccabees are not so different from the legacy we inherited from the mothers and fathers of the American Revolution, who fought for religious freedom, and to achieve the promise of a democratic republic free from tyranny.

 In their honor, at this moment, let us engage in the work of hanukkat hamedinah, and hannukat haezrachut, rededicating ourselves to our nation and to the challenges and privileges of citizenship. The battle for the soul of our nation will not be won with swords, or muskets, or verbal daggers. Because as Jews we know the spiritual is political and the political is spiritual. We will illuminate our country by widening our hearts, and establishing richly Jewish homes in all parts of our great nation, sharing the sparks of Torah with all Americans.

 Chag Urim Sameach. Happy Hanukkah.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Feeding Souls and Nurturing Citizens: Parashat Toldot

This week's portion is parashat Toldot. We encounter two brothers, Jacob and Esau, who represent two different approaches to decision making. Jacob is the scholar and the schemer, the one who is willing to forgo short-term satisfaction in order to achieve long-term aims. On the hand you have Esau who is the hunter and the straight-shooter, who puts the fulfillment of basic needs in front of long-term, strategic aims. Jacob is clever (and often duplicitous) and Esau is candid (and often naive.) Jacob acquires great wealth and power but is never at peace, while Esau follows his heart and stomach, but does not live his life on the run.

The Jewish tradition, and in particular the rabbinic tradition, favors the priorities and character of Jacob over Esau. The rabbis excuse Jacob's misdeeds, and vilify Esau's ostensibly innocent actions.

However, we miss a great deal of wisdom when we overlook or demonize Esau's choices. Jacob had the ability to think in the long-term because his short-term needs were provided by his mother, Rebecca. Esau needed to think about immediate gratification because he did not receive the attention or coddling of his mother, but rather spent his time serving his sick father, Isaac. Esau also trusted his brother, and therefore, never believed that relying on him for basic care and hospitality would cost him his birthright.

It is easier to be generous and strategic when your basic needs are cared for by others. It is much more difficult to be a conduit of generosity, empathy, and critical thinking when your stomach is empty and your soul needs tending. If the most basic of someone's concerns are not addressed -- feeling respected and cared for -- then we are misguided to expect the kind of empathy and long-term thinking we would like to see in our fellow citizens.

Let us focus on feeding and nurturing (physically and spiritually) our fellow citizens at this moment. These acts of care have tremendous implications for our people and our body politic. As our rabbi's taught, "Ein Kemach, Ein Torah." Without food, there can be no study. This is a moment that demands learning -- let us feed one another so we are ready and able to address the demands of citizenship that this moment demands.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Yom Kippur Sermon 5777

Yom Kippur was a moving experience in Waterville this year.  I was honored to pursue teshuva with my community and Hillel.

I delivered two sermons, one of which I will publish online.  For access to the other sermon, please email me to discuss.

Kol Nidre 5777 - "Dear Nitzan"

Cannot wait to see everyone over Sukkot.  Moadim L'Simcha!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rosh HaShanah Sermons - 5777

Rosh HaShanah was beautiful and fulfilling this year at Beth Israel Congregation!  Colby College Hillel and Beth Israel came together for an Erev Rosh HaShanah dinner of 90 people followed by vibrant and warm services.

I am happy to share my two sermons from this past Rosh HaShanah:

1) Erev Rosh HaShanah - Year in Review

2) Rosh HaShanah Day 1 - Leadership in Anxious Times

L'Shanah Tovah and Gmar Hatimah Tovah!