Friday, September 12, 2014

Telling the Story, Writing the Story: Ki Tavo


         A good story touches the heart like few other things can.  Where facts and arguments too often fall short, a compelling narrative can succeed.  Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud are filled with narratives that we are required to retell time and time again in order to shape who we are and who our children will become.  It is no coincidence that the most popular Jewish text and pedagogical tool is the haggadah, which just means, "the story."
      In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we are told which story we need to tell when bringing our fruit offerings before God.  In Deuteronomy 26, we are required to tell the story of the Exodus before we give our gifts on the altar.  In a nutshell, we proclaim, "our ancestors were threatened so we went down to Egypt, we were oppressed in Egypt as slaves, and then the mighty hand of God redeemed us from our captivity and brought us to the Promised Land. Now, as we stand in this Promised Land, we give You this gift as an offering of thanks and as an acknowledgement of Your saving power."  After we tell the story, we must prostrate and place our fruits before God. Then we are commanded in Deuteronomy 26:11

יא. וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ:

11Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.

In order to give a gift worthy of God, you must come to terms with your past (both the good and the bad) and thank God for your blessings.  But even after you have provided your offering, you have not completed all of the commandments at hand.  Once you have laid down your fruits, you are commanded to rejoice with all of your gifts.  You must appreciate your abundance and be happy with it. Then, you must share it with those who are reliant on your generosity: your servants (the Levites) and the strangers among you.
        To be a Jew, you must never forget or disassociate from your people's story.  You must tell it time and time again to remember where you have come from. You must repeat it always in order to remember the blessings that have brought you to your current position.  You must pass the story from generation to generation, so that it flows easily from the lips of your children and your students.  You must tell it every year, so that you are so comfortable with the story, so confident in its telling, that you can embellish it and continue to write it.  It is not only incumbent upon us to repeat our great narrative, but also to make the story our own, to implement its lessons in our lives, and to write the next chapters.  We must rejoice in blessing, and create a world where others can celebrate blessings with us.  This is what it means to be a light unto the nations, this is what it means to internalize the story and make the promise of a redeemed world a reality.  We are not a people united by blood, but by a great story we are committed to preserving, learning from, and continue writing -- across the globe and for all time.  What a great blessing and responsibility to remember as we approach a new year.

Shanah Tovah u'mitukah.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

High Holidays at Beth Israel Congregation!! Let's get ready for 5775!

High Holidays in Waterville, Maine 5775!

Rosh HaShanah 5775:

1) Rosh HaShanah Evening Services: Wednesday, September 24, 2014 at 6:00 pm
Open Erev Rosh HaShanah dinner will be served at 7:00 pm (RSVP to Mel Weiss)

2) First day Rosh HaShanah services: ThursdaySeptember 25, 9:30am – 12:00pm 
Tashlikh, September 25, 2:25pm, Messalonskee stream

3) Second Day Rosh HaShanah services: Friday, September 26, 10am – 12:30pm

Yom Kippur 5775

1) Kol Nidre services: Friday, October 3, 2014 at 5:45 pm

2) Yom Kippur morning services: SaturdayOctober 4, 9:30 am – 1pm

3) Mincha/Ma’ariv/Ne’ilah: October 4, 2014 at 5:00 pm-7:15 pm

4) Havdallah and Potluck (Dairy) Break the fast at Beth Israel Congregation: October 4, 2014 at 7:30 pm

[Colby Hillel will break the fast at 7 pm in the Colby Hillel room in the Pugh Center]

Sukkot 5775: (Sukkah will be located on the Colby campus, Foss Lawn)

1) Beth Israel/Colby College Dinner in the Sukkah: Wednesday, October 8, 2014 at 5:00 pm

2) Sukkot morning services at Beth Israel: Thursday,  October 9, 2014 10:00 am

3) Sh’mini Atzeret Services (Includes Yizkor): Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 10am

4) Simchat Torah Services: Thursday, October 16, 2014 at 7:00pm

Friday, August 1, 2014

Parashat D'varim: What is a Blessing and What is a Curse?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cities of Refuge and Sources for Hope: Parashat Massei

Parashat Masei Sermon
Delivered at Rockland Synagogue
July 25, 2014/ 27 Tammuz 5774

I don’t know about all of you, but the past two weeks have been challenging my faith -- faith in humanity, faith in justice, faith in sanity, faith in the future of our homeland, faith in a safe and fulfilling future for our next generation of Jews.  Most of you, I am sure, have been keeping up with the news coming out of Israel and the Palestinian territories, and the ripple effects for Diaspora Jewry around the world -- it’s Shabbat, so I won’t rehash events that define the world that lay outside of our Shabbat bubble. But I came here to talk to you about faith and doubt, and this week’s portion struck a very resonant chord with me on that topic, in particular, faith in the ability to heal and rebuild after death and tragedy.

Our portion begins with a retelling of the journeys of the Israelites in the desert.  After years of wandering in wilderness, Moses rightly sees the value in recalling how far the Israelites have come in their serpentine journey.  Though it was not clear at the outset, this wandering had a purpose, and each stop had its value worth remembering on the border of the promised land.  

Interestingly enough, before the people Israel enters the Land of Israel, they need to do some prep work -- they need to set up “arei miklat,” cities of refuge.  Setting up cities of refuge before establishing a commonwealth reminds me of the midrash that God created teshuva before the Divine Presence created the world.  Without the ability to repent, return, and forgive, the enterprise of human life cannot exist. Without cities of refuge, you cannot create a just and functional society.

In this week’s portion, parashat Massei, we learn about how these cities function in Numbers chapter 35:

9. The Lord spoke to Moses saying:
ט. וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:
10. Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan,
י. דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:
11. you shall designate cities for yourselves; they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there.
יא. וְהִקְרִיתֶם לָכֶם עָרִים עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם וְנָס שָׁמָּה רֹצֵחַ מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה:
12. These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation.
יב. וְהָיוּ לָכֶם הֶעָרִים לְמִקְלָט מִגֹּאֵל וְלֹא יָמוּת הָרֹצֵחַ עַד עָמְדוֹ לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לַמִּשְׁפָּט:
13. The cities that you provide shall serve as six cities of refuge for you.
יג. וְהֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּנוּ שֵׁשׁ עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם:
14. You shall provide the three cities in trans Jordan and the three cities in the land of Canaan; they shall be cities of refuge.
יד. אֵת | שְׁלשׁ הֶעָרִים תִּתְּנוּ מֵעֵבֶר לַיַּרְדֵּן וְאֵת שְׁלשׁ הֶעָרִים תִּתְּנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה:
15. These six cities shall be a refuge for the children of Israel and for the proselyte and resident among them, so that anyone who unintentionally kills a person can flee there.
טו. לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלַגֵּר וְלַתּוֹשָׁב בְּתוֹכָם תִּהְיֶינָה שֵׁשׁ הֶעָרִים הָאֵלֶּה לְמִקְלָט לָנוּס שָׁמָּה כָּל מַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה:

God understands, and Moses communicates to the people Israel, that human beings will kill each other.  Living in Canaan doesn’t make sin go away.  Some will kill others intentionally, and others with kill their fellow human beings by mistake.  This is part of the project we call human life. Sometimes we kill others out of anger, out of fear, or sometimes we really don’t intend another harm, but in the exercise of power, others fall victim.  We learn in the Torah that God does not believe that those individuals deserve to die, and require protection from the blood avenger (the closest of kin charged with killing the murderer of their family member.)  We also learn, that life cannot go on as normal after one person has killed another.  There needs to be distance between the perpetrator the the relatives of the victim, and life must be changed radically after such a dramatic act.  Thus, the perpetrator must flee to the city of refuge for protection, alone, and build a new life in one of these six cities.

The cities of refuge both acknowledge a wrong while protecting a person who does not deserve to be killed.  It acknowledges an ethical gray area, and attempts to create space for someone who falls into that area that cannot be confined to black and white categories of good and evil.  It allows the families of the victims some sense of justice while putting a stop to the process of revenge.  I think that cities of refuge provide something different than forgiveness, but I think the two ideas are linked because they both provide us the ability to start anew after someone devastates us unintentionally:

The philosopher Hannah Arendt talks about the necessary relationship between human action and the process of forgiveness:  Human action, she writes, is defined by two features: (a) it cannot be reversed, and (b) its effects cannot be predicted. Even the deed committed with the best possible intentions cannot be undone, and its consequences cannot be fully anticipated. Therefore, undoubtedly, our actions cause anguish for the people in our lives. If one is fully aware  of the capacity she possesses to hurt others, it is easy to see how she could live a life paralyzed by fear. She must wonder how she can possibly continue to live an active, meaningful, authentic life. But, according to Arendt, there is hope – there are two essential pathways that allow us to live fulfilling, positive, influential lives: forgiveness and the ability to make promises.

The multiple and unpredictable consequences of our actions can lead to an endless chain of response and revenge. When someone hurts us, we can react in kind, and let the situation get out of control. The situation can become something like a game of pinball – every time the ball is struck, it picks up speed, power, and its course becomes increasingly unruly. When someone does us wrong, we have the choice to strike back, or to stop the process when we have the most control over it. Arendt posits that “Forgiveness is thus the opposite of vengeance.” Vengeance extends the consequences of transgression by automatically reacting to it, in a sometimes unending sequence of actions and reactions that bind all involved after the initial offense.”

Therefore, in order to act in any way, we need to live in a world where forgiveness is possible. As Roxanne Euben, professor of political science at Wellesley College puts it, “Forgiveness is that release that human beings grant one another from the transgressions they have committed against one another unknowingly, but without ever succumbing to the temptation to forget.” Arendt explains that forgiveness, “contains within it the genuine possibility of freeing both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven, and thus beginning anew.”

One may believe that I am speaking in a not-so-veiled way about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I am, but only in a very limited way.  I don’t believe that cities of refuge are the answer, because at this point, too many people would need to be in one.  And I don’t really believe that we can all just forgive each other and live in peace.  I believe that anyone who asserts that this conflict is simple and has an easy, straightforward solution is really not someone worth having a conversation with.  But there needs to be some kind of hope in the ability for something else.   A method for accepting that we hurt each other with varying levels of intention -- that something happened, but we’re willing to begin something new.  I don’t know how to get there, and I know its not easy, it may not even be possible.  But part of the process of living a life of faith is believing in the validity of that which we do not see or have never seen before.  We do not sing, “those who sow in tears will reap in joy,” because that is how the world works, but because we entreat God to make it so.  Faith is the way to live through the agony of being hurt and hurting others, and believing that there can be something other than pain.

Ken Yehi Ratzon
May it be God’s will

Monday, May 26, 2014

Colby Invocation 2014

It is always a great honor and joy to offer the invocation at Colby commencement.  Here are my Bob Dylan inspired remarks:


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Get Ready for the Maine Conference for Jewish Life! June 3-5, 2014

Shavuot is quickly approaching!  While we don't have rooms available on campus anymore, we do still have spaces for participants.  We need to have accurate numbers for food services, and we want to keep track of how many folks are interested in our program!

Check out the full schedule here.

You can register here.

CANNOT WAIT TO SEE YOU THERE!  Over 30 faculty teaching for over 48 hours!  

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Sin of Happenstance: Parashat Bechukotai

One of the most important lessons I learned in rabbinical school was from my Bible professor, Dr. David Sperling.  He always told us that the ancient Israelites preferred to believe in an angry God instead of an arbitrary God.  Consequences that are arbitrary, happenstance, and without reason are far more frightening and disturbing than those for which there is cause.  The Israelites preferred to create  narratives where there was almost always a causal relationship between sin and calamity, even if it meant blaming themselves for whatever negative result befell them.  This trend in Jewish historiography has had positive and negative implications for the Jewish people.  On the positive end, we are a people willing to look inward critically in order to improve.  On the other end, sometimes we cannot properly identify outside evil and danger because of our inward focus.

Despite the complexities of looking at our national history through this lens, we can learn a great deal about relationships (their successes and downfalls) when we confront the Jewish aversion to arbitrariness. When we get into fights with a person we love, the worst weapon we can wield is ignoring the person -- treating her as though she is dispensable and meaningless.  Invisibility is worse than disgust.  We confront this fact in the week's Torah portion, parashat Bechukotai.  God lets the Israelites know the worst sin they can commit against the Divine:

23And if, through these, you will still not be chastised [to return] to Me, and if you [continue to] treat Me happenstance,כג. וְאִם בְּאֵלֶּה לֹא תִוָּסְרוּ לִי וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי קֶרִי:

24Then I too, will treat you as happenstance. I will again add seven punishments for your sins:

כד. וְהָלַכְתִּי אַף אֲנִי עִמָּכֶם בְּקֶרִי וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶתְכֶם גַּם אָנִי שֶׁבַע עַל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם:

In Hebrew, God uses the phrase, " וַהֲלַכְתֶּם עִמִּי קֶרִי:" the direct translations of which is, "If you walk with me by chance."  If an Israelite believes that they just happened to be redeemed from slavery, if they believe they just happened to receive the gift of Torah, if they believe that their safety and ultimate redemption were accidents of history, they have committed the gravest of sins.  Like a child who doesn't recognize that their achievements are directly linked to the toil and sacrifice of their parents, we can all fall into the trap of seeing the world only in terms of our own achievements, and be willfully blind to the gifts bestowed by others.  

As Jews, a people who believe in a God that we cannot see, touch, or feel, it is often easy to ignore God's gifts.  It is too easy to ignore the life force that connects us to one another.  It is too easy to lose our sense of wonder.  It is too easy to believe that the bounty we enjoy just happened to come into existence.  But we learn in this week's portion, there is nothing more painful to God than to be ignored, to be left in silence -- The Source of Life seeks our recognition, our blessings, our conversation, our awe, and ultimately, our gratitude.

Judaism is a religion without a dogma, and as such it is hard to imagine what a person could say in order to be considered an apostate.  However, we learn there is one sentence that can be uttered that places you outside the boundaries of the faith, "There is no judge and there is no judgement."   Apostasy in Judaism is a form of nihilism -- it is the belief that everything is happenstance and arbitrary, that nothing really matters.

Let us learn from this week's portion to recognize the gifts we enjoy that come from God's grace and the goodness of others.  Let us not fall into laziness of thought or belief, failing to see the relationships between cause and effect.  There are many mysteries in the universe,  but there are also many things we are indeed capable of knowing.  Let us not ignore the sources of our privilege and blessing, take accountability for who we are and what we have, and give earnest thanks.

Shabbat Shalom.