Thursday, February 4, 2016

Default Settings: Parashat Mishpatim

      Default settings are a powerful thing.  We know, for example, that if our computers are set to print double-sided as a default setting, we will save pounds of paper over the course of the year.  If we make arrangements for our retirement savings to be automatically deducted from our paychecks, we are far more likely to save sufficient funds than if we need to think about it each month.  Default settings can help us habituate ourselves to positive behaviors, but they can also be quite dangerous.  In Parashat Mishpatim, we see the dangers of being unable or unwilling to change entrenched modes of thought and behavior.
      Here we are deep in the narrative of Exodus, having been redeemed from slavery in Egypt and having just received the Torah at Sinai.  And yet, we are immediately confronted with laws concerning an individual who wants to remain a slave.  These laws are both surprising and somewhat predictable.  We know from midrashim that fourth-fifths of the Israelites were not redeemed from Egypt because they preferred the familiarity of slavery to the radical newness of freedom.  Even the one fifth that did cross the Sea of Reeds would whine bitterly to Moses about preferring the creature comforts (real or imagined) of Egypt to the barrenness of Sinai.  There is a part of the human condition that relies strongly on default settings, even when our default settings are frustrating, injurious, and even dehumanizing.
       One of the interesting elements of the laws pertaining to “voluntary” slavery is that a person must have their ear pierced on the doorpost of their master’s house if he chooses to remain in servitude.  Doorposts are imbued with deep meaning in the Bible.  We put the blood of the Pascal offering on doorposts so that the angel of death would know to pass over our homes in Egypt.  It is also the place where we affix mizuzot, reminding us of G-D’s laws every time we enter or leave our homes.  The doorpost is at once one of the most stable parts of our homes, but also the quintessentially liminal space where private and public spaces are created and delineated.
Why does the man who chooses to remain a slave need to pierce his ear on the doorpost?  According to Rabbi Shimon in the Gemara (Kiddushin 22b, cited in Rashi’s commentary), “...why were the door and the doorpost singled out from all the fixtures in the house? The Holy One, blessed is God, said: The door and the doorpost were witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the two doorposts, and I said, ‘For the children of Israel are slaves to Me; they are My slaves,’ but [they are] not slaves to slaves, and [yet] this one went and acquired for himself a master-[his ear] shall be bored before them [for everyone to see].”  The doorpost plays a dual role:  1) it reminds the man choosing to remain a slave that God redeemed him from slavery and intended for him only to be a servant unto God and not another human being 2) publicizes this man’s choice along with its painful consequences.
Most of us are not publicly shamed for our self-harming default settings, nor do we engage in rituals that make us aware of the negative implications of our repeated choices.  However, this week’s portion reminds us that retaining the status quo is not always in our best interest.  In many way the voluntary slave is lucky to have this ritual that makes him think more deeply about his choice, and will hopefully encourage him to liberate himself once the Jubilee year arrives.  We have just celebrated Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees and the celebration of life renewed after hibernation and death.  Let us employ this Rosh HaShanah as a time to reevaluate our default settings, keeping the ones that help us stay on the right path, and breaking with the habits that keep us enslaved to behaviors and mindsets that hold us back, depress us, and keep us from being the people we want to be.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Intersectionality is the Not the Enemy: Reflections on the Creating Change Conference

              Even though it has been five years since I was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary, I often still field questions about what it was like to be one of the first openly queer rabbinical students studying there. When describing my experience, I often like to begin with this story: when one of my gay male classmates expressed concern to a JTS administrator that he would not be viewed as authentic out in the pulpit, the administrator responded, "you should consider growing a beard."  Obviously, I could not have received the same advice, and this story shows how my challenges as a woman and a queer person should not be viewed independently if you want to understand my experience in the world, the complicated nature of solidarity, and how to best be a source of support in the challenges that I face. It may not be impossible to speak about my identity as a queer rabbi without discussing my gender, but it certainly impoverishes the conversation and obscures an honest portrayal of the full essence of my experiences. My identity is not simply an amalgam of unrelated labels, but is the product of how all the aspects of my identity intersect and interact.  This story is a very simple example of how appreciating intersectionality can lead to a more nuanced and helpful understanding of reality, and in particular, how various compounded forms of oppression can express themselves in ways far more complicated than the sum of their individual parts.  In my experience, few people would view this theory (or lens of understanding) negatively or as a danger to the Jewish people.  
        Very few theories are inherently dangerous or always lead to negative outcomes. Most powerful and enduring political theories rise to prominence because they amplify previously hidden or excluded voices and enrich our understanding of how the world works. Rather, problems arise when those theories are overused, manipulated, or caricatured, either by their supposed proponents or opponents.  In the case of many on the the far left's hatred of Israel, and its activists' movements to silence all voices that humanize the varied experiences of Israelis, the theory of intersectionality is not being used as a way to further clarify the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, queer Palestinian or Israeli identities, or the occupation. Rather, many of these activists are seeking to advance an approach that I would call "bundled politics."  This form of thinking does not bring greater nuance to the conversation, but coercively requires an automatic allegiance to a certain set of political positions in order to carry the badges of a "progressive, intelligent, ethical, aware person." It not only pressures individuals to abandon critical, balanced thought in regard to a particular issue (in this case, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but also to succumb to group-think in regard to a wide variety of political and ethical issues. And only if you adopt all of the politics in this bundle, they assert, do you deserve a seat at the table in universities, conferences, or progressive politics.  Obviously, it is much easier to claim the validity and inclusion of the political positions in the bundle if you drown or force out all opposing points of view from the outset of a conversation.  Bundled politics not only elevates the stature of identity politics, but also seeks to formulate an identity based on political unanimity.  
         As we've seen with BDS fights within highly ideological and politicized academic disciplines, only one side of the conflict is ever presented, opposing voices are expunged and excluded, and only one tale of oppression in a complicated conflict is ever given voice or validated. While proponents of bundled politics might use the language of intersectionality in order to provide a veneer of nuance and academic grounding for their assertions, they are in fact abusing the theory and its original intentions.  They are calling for an automatic solidarity with one side of a deeply complex conflict based on a highly curated, partial, and overly simplistic portrayal of Zionism and Israeli identity that is reinforced through (often violent) abuses of power in classrooms and political settings.  In this respect, the greatest self-described proponents of intersectionality are the ones who pervert its original intentions the most flagrantly: flattening and simplifying conversations that need to be understood in their full complexity in order to be addressed effectively, ethically, empathetically, and with intellectual integrity.  
        In response to this trend, there have been a few writers in the Jewish press blaming intersectionality for an outbreak in anti-Israel activism that poses a threat to the Jewish community. I think that this critique is misguided. Understanding the ways in which various forms of oppression operate in concert, whether in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality in the US, threatens no one.  In fact, when used as one lens among many, and in conjunction with rich, complicated, and rigorous understandings of history and politics, it helps us better empathize, understand, and act.  To claim that all of these theories make us "stupid," does not advance the discourse or our standing within it.  Rather, it evidences a paucity of understanding, a diminished sense of empathy, and a lack of intellectual generosity in appreciating theories that have emerged in particular from women and scholars of color. Moreover, we need to lead conversations about Israel and the conflict that do not obscure the darker elements of Zionism's history or current troubling trends in Israeli society if we want to claim the mantle of intellectual honesty and ethical superiority.  I think that certain elements of the mainstream Jewish community have gotten the message and have adapted accordingly, but there are still too many corners of the Jewish leadership who seek to limit conversations in ways that are intellectually dishonest and unhelpful.  
     I share the outrage of Jews and Zionists who recognize how antisemitism has infiltrated the academy and progressive politics in multiple and worrying ways. Even though these activists may vigorously deny the label of antisemitism, at the very least they benefit from deeply ingrained antisemitic attitudes that assume Jews (or the Jew-writ-large of the State of Israel) are inherently powerful, wealthy, aggressive, shadowy, clannish, and untrustworthy. With little of the intellectual honesty and empathy they claim to embody, many anti-Israel activists advance their cause with the aid of these dangerous tropes, and have enjoyed unparalleled success in singling out Israel for rebuke as a result.  As a consequence, not only are Israelis dehumanized in deeply repulsive ways by a supposedly humane academy/progressive political class, but BDS activism in the far left has become one of the most effective vehicles for reifying and spreading calumnies and discrimination against Jews.  This state of affairs has already led to violence against Jewish students on campus and the exclusion of valuable Jewish voices in progressive causes that have no clear, obvious link to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 
     As a Jew, a Zionist, a progressive, a professor, and a campus rabbi, I am deeply worried about these trends and what they mean for my students.  I neither want to see them abandon solidarity with other oppressed groups that the Torah and our history demand, nor do I want them to internalize the antisemitism and simplistic narratives about Israel that are so pervasive on campus and in progressive political circles. Ultimately, we must have the self-respect and the self-confidence to both stand up for ourselves and for others.  We must refuse to be terrorized and silenced.  Nor can we afford to turn inward and abandon other causes for justice and freedom.  I anticipate that this will be a lonely road for the progressive Jewish community (even those who actively struggle on behalf of Palestinians) but hope that some of the language and spirit of solidarity can be extended even to us in the years to come.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Time for Silence in the Face of Injustice?: Parashat B'Shalach

          We live in an era of outrage, much of it justified.  Just this morning alone, I felt my blood pressure rise as I read more about children being poisoned by their governor in Flint, Michigan, trillions of dollars wasted on unjustifiable military expenditures, and the ten-year anniversary of Ilan Halimi's torture and murder in France.  I could go on, as most of us could.  The world is full of legitimate injustices, and we are also bombarded with messages from the media intended to outrage us and click on the next article.  Even if we focus on the legitimate and clear evil in the world, how could we ever condone or encourage others to remain silent as we face these daunting realities?  
        This week's portion, Parashat B'Shalach, commands the children of Israel to do just that.  As the Israelites flee Pharaoh and the Egyptians, they are told to stand still, watch, and be quiet!  They are commanded to witness God's salvation, to stand still and silent while God fights on their behalf:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם אַל תִּירָאוּ הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת ה' אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִיפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד עוֹלָם. ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן (שמות יד: יג-יד).

Exodus 14:13 - Moses said to the people, Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord's salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity. 14 The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent!

How do we square Moses' instructions with a tradition that teaches us to pursue justice and rebuke those who who bring sin upon themselves and the community? Doctor Yair Barkai of Bar-Ilan University culls a variety of exegetical sources that shed light on what might have motivated Moses' instructions to the Israelites.

He first brings a famous midrash that deals with these verses from the Mekhilta d'Rabbi Ishmael:

(מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח, פרשה ב):
ארבע כתות נעשו ישראל על הים, אחת אומרת ליפול אל הים ואחת אומרת לשוב למצרים ואחת אומרת לעשות מלחמה כנגדן ואחת אומרת נצווח כנגדן. זאת שאמרה ליפול אל הים נאמר להם: " הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת יְשׁוּעַת ה'", זו שאמרה נשוב למצרים נאמר להם: "כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת מִצְרַיִם ", זו שאמרה נעשה מלחמה כנגדן נאמר להם: "ה' יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם", זו שאמרה נצווח כנגדן נאמר להם: "וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישׁוּן ". "ה' ילחם לכם", לא לשעה זו בלבד ילחם לכם אלא לעולם ילחם כנגדן של אויביכם.
There were four types of Israelites on the ocean shore: One type said "we'll fall in the ocean," another said, "we shall return to Egypt," one said, "we will make war upon the Egyptians," and the others said, "we will cry out against them."  To the first group, Moses responded, "Stand resolute and watch God's redemption," to the second group he said, "you will never again see the Egyptians," to the next group he said, "God will fight for you!" and to the last group he said, "you will be silent!" "God will fight for you", not only in this hour alone, but God will fight for you against your enemies for all eternity. (Mikhilta B'Shalach, Parashah Bet)
According to the midrash, each part of the verse was directed toward a different type of Israelite.  The ones inclined to cry out were told to be quiet.  According to two commentators, these Israelites were told to stay mum because they were not fit to fight or cry out.  Ibn Ezra said that the Israelites could confront the Egyptians in word or deed because the Egypt/Egyptians "had not left them."  Both physically and spiritually, Egypt had not left the Israelites, and they still engaged with Egypt and its leaders as their lords and masters.  Until they had physically left Egypt and spiritually cleansed themselves of the internalized inferiority that they Egyptian masters had instilled in them, they weren't the right agents to confront Egyptian evil. 
      Rabbeinu B'chai (Spain 1255-1340) provides another potential reason.  If the Israelites had cried out after a lifetime of worshipping the same idols as the Egyptians, God might be less sympathetic to the claims of the Israelites.  In essence, the Israelites were not so holy and pure themselves, and their cries would highlight their own sin and hypocrisy more than elicit God's righteous indignation on their behalf.  Better to keep their mouths shut and let God do God's thing for God's own reasons.
    Finally, Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, in opposition to the previous two commentators, posits that the silence of the Israelites should not to be interpreted negatively.  Rather, they should show faith in God's saving power by not crying out.  The ultimate act of faith is to stay silent.  This idea builds off a saying of R. Meir in the aforementioned midrash, "If God will fight for you when you are silent, how much the more God will do for you if you sing God's praises!"  When we cry out or criticize, even with the best of intentions, we may be communicating to others that we don't have full faith in their power to act.  
      So, what do we learn from these texts?  Should we always stay silent and simply wait for God's rescue?  Absolutely not.  We learn in our tradition that it is forbidden for us to rely upon miracles. Rather, we can take direction from the words of Ecclesiasties, "there is a time for silence and a time for speaking out."  The Israelites will have to fight against Amalek, an evil even greater than the Egyptians, not so soon in the future. There will be plenty of time for crying and fighting.  There will be numerous battles for the Israelites and their children to fight.  However, as they stood at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, they didn't have the strength, centeredness, mindset, or credibility to be fighters in this battle.  In order to weather and survive the long journey ahead, our ancestors needed to know how to pick their battles, and be willing to rely on God when they didn't have the strength or the skills to succeed on their own.  No person or people has the power to fight every battle effectively every time.  This parashah teaches us that we should have the wisdom to know when to rest, and to always have the allies -- Divine and human -- who can cry and fight for us when we don't have the power or positioning to be our own best advocates.
Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Center for Small Town Jewish Life: Energizing Jewish Life through Collaboration

A ritual at the launch of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life,
representing the collaboration between Colby College,
Beth Israel Congregation, and the Alfond-Lunder-Levine families.

     On November 19, 2015, Colby College formally inaugurated the Dorothy "Bibby" Levine Alfond Assistant Professorship in Jewish Studies and launched the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, a joint initiative of Beth Israel Congregation, Colby College Hillel, and the Jewish Studies Program at Colby. In truth, the Center brings together many more partners than its three anchors: it aims to forge collaborations among all of Maine's synagogues and Hillels, and to work with national Jewish organizations like Hillel International and the Association for Jewish Studies in order to support and sustain Jewish life at small colleges and small towns across the country. 
    The work of the Center began before our official launch. For the past three years, we have piloted and executed programs that have brought new strength and energy to the Jewish communities of Maine. Our flagship initiative is the Maine Conference for Jewish Life, directed by Melanie Weiss (Education Director at Portland's Temple Beth El and Waterville's Beth Israel Congregation) and Rabbi Erica Asch (Augusta's Temple Beth El and Bowdoin Hillel). It has reached hundreds of Jews throughout the state, growing significantly with each year and garnering international attention for its unique focus and noteworthy successes. Under the leadership of these two women, we also run the yearly mid-Maine Jewish Funtensive, a low-cost summer educational experience that provides immersive Hebrew activities and fun for Jewish children from across the state. Through these programs, the Center actualizes its core belief that all Jews are entitled to the best of Jewish learning and the richest cultural experiences, regardless of socioeconomic background and geographic location. 
     We are also committed to fostering fruitful collaborations between colleges and synagogues in order to increase the quality of staffing and programming for Jewish communities outside of major urban centers. We have cultivated an inspirational and synergistic relationship between Beth Israel Congregation and Colby College that can serve as a model for sustaining and enriching small-town Jewish life. Colby Hillel and Beth Israel Congregation celebrate major holidays together, with Colby students serving as Torah readers, synagogue board members, and Purim schpiel players with Beth Israel parents and kids. Beth Israel families host Colby students for "Home Hospitality Shabbat," offering a Jewish home away from home for Hillel students in Waterville. This year our students hosted their first "Reverse Home Hospitality Shabbat," illustrating our students' deep appreciation for their relationship with the synagogue and their desire to stand as Jewish adults in their own right. Our Colby students also serve as Waterville Jewish Leadership Fellows, teaching in our local Hebrew school, planning the annual Colby-Bowdoin-Bates Shabbaton, and running and other yearly programs.
   Under the leadership of Rabbi Dr. David Freidenreich (Associate Director of the Center), the Jewish Studies program has consistently played an important role in bringing the most impressive teachers and scholars to small communities throughout the state. The program has also brought Colby students into working relationships local community members through research into Maine's substantial Jewish history and present. We are proud that the Jewish Studies program at Colby is a leader in advancing a forward-thinking approach to community education and engagement.  
    With the launch of this ambitious initiative, we are committed to enriching Jewish life throughout the state of Maine, replicating the collaborative model developed in Waterville nationally, and bringing the unique contributions and needs of small-town communities and colleges into the national Jewish conversation. We invite you to join us on this journey.  Join us for the Maine Conference for Jewish Life, spread the word about the work we are doing in Waterville, and contribute to our vision. Every gift you make will be matched by the Harold Alfond Foundation up to $100,000.  We have until September to meet this goal.  Please help us in actualizing our sincere belief that kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh - every Jew is responsible for one another, especially those on the margins of Jewish life.

With deep gratitude and excitement,

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs
Director, Center for Small Town Jewish Life
Dorothy "Bibby" Levine Alfond Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies
Spiritual Leader, Beth Israel Congregation

Bibby Alfond Inaugural: Rabbi Rachel Isaacs’ Inaugural Address from Colby College on Vimeo.
Click here for full text of my remarks.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Dance Like Everyone is Watching: Parashat Vayetze

        "Dance like no one is watching!"  This is a famous adage that encourages us to live courageously and without regard for what others think of us. I think there is value in this attitude -- don't let the judgment of others keep you from having fun or from doing what is right.  However, in the Jewish tradition, we are encouraged very strongly to act as though the entire universe is watching: our neighbors, our enemies, and our God.  Indeed, the Tanakh, our rabbis, and our medieval sages took reputations quite seriously.  We learn in Proverbs 22:1
א  נִבְחָר שֵׁם, מֵעֹשֶׁר רָב:    מִכֶּסֶף וּמִזָּהָב, חֵן טוֹב.1 A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.
In our tradition, the esteem of others matters a great deal.  We should not live for ourselves and for today, but rather for a lasting legacy of personal integrity and communal regard.  A life lived Jewishly is a life lived with a deep consciousness of the interconnectedness of community and the duty we have toward others.
            In Parashat Vayetze, we encounter a few examples of this cultural value.  Our portion begins with the departure of Jacob from Be'er Sheva on his path to Haran:

Genesis 28:10 And Jacob left Beersheba, and he went to Haran.
יוַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:
Rashi asks the question -- why does it include the seemingly extraneous detail that he "left Beersheba," when the Torah could have just said that he travelled to Haran?  Rashi answers his own question:

And Jacob left: Scripture had only to write: “And Jacob went to Haran.” Why did it mention his departure? But this tells [us] that the departure of a righteous man from a place makes an impression, for while the righteous man is in the city, he is its beauty, he is its splendor, he is its majesty. When he departs from there, its beauty has departed, its splendor has departed, its majesty has departed. And likewise (Ruth 1:7): “And she went forth from the place,” stated in reference to Naomi and Ruth. - [From Gen. Rabbah 68:6]
ויצא יעקב מבאר שבע: לא היה צריך לכתוב אלא וילך יעקב חרנה, ולמה הזכיר יציאתו, אלא מגיד שיציאת צדיק מן המקום עושה רושם, שבזמן שהצדיק בעיר הוא הודה הוא זיוה הוא הדרה, יצא משם פנה הודה פנה זיוה פנה הדרה וכן (רות א ז) ותצא מן המקום, האמור בנעמי ורות:
When a righteous individual like Jacob or Ruth leaves a place, it makes an impression.  The grandeur of the city is tarnished and diminished when a great person leaves, either by choice or through death.  While Ruth is an individual about whom nothing negative is recorded, we know that Jacob was not a perfect person.  He tricked his vulnerable brother and his disabled father, and was not always upstanding in his behavior.  Being a great person does not being a person without sin or fault.  However, being an individual who is willing to do teshuva, to grow and repent as a human being and a leader, marks the beginning of a remarkable life.  Jacob's life in many respects is a lifelong, serpentine journey to be better.  He doesn't always succeed -- he was human after all.  But he lived righteously enough that Be'er Sheva was worse off when he departed.  His life conveyed enough goodness that the city could not be the same without him.  I think the first thing we can learn from this parasha is that we should endeavor to live in a way that people miss us when we are gone.  We should ask ourselves at the end of each day: did I bring joy, sweetness, justice, comfort, and thoughtfulness to my community?  Would this place hold the same value if I weren't here?
        The second lesson that can be gleaned from this parasha is that a righteous person is saddened not by what she cannot enjoy, but rather by what she cannot give.  We encounter one of the most beautiful scenes in the Torah when Jacob encounters Rachel for the first time.  When Jacob sees his cousin he runs to her and kisses her, and then breaks out crying.  Why does Jacob cry when he sees Rachel?  Part of it could be the release of finally seeing someone he knows will care for him after an arduous and lonely journey -- his crying is simply an act of catharsis and relief.  Rashi, however, provides an alternative interpretation:

and wept: Since he foresaw with the holy spirit that she (Rachel) would not enter the grave with him. Another explanation: Since he came empty-handed, he said, “Eliezer, my grandfather’s servant, had nose rings, and bracelets and sweet fruits in his possession, and I am coming with nothing in my hands. [He had nothing] because Eliphaz the son of Esau had pursued him to kill him at his father’s orders; he (Eliphaz) overtook him, but since he had grown up in Isaac’s lap, he held back his hand. He said to him (Jacob), ”What shall I do about my father’s orders?“ Jacob replied,”Take what I have, for a poor man is counted as dead." - [from Bereishit Rabbathi by Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan]
ויבך: לפי שצפה ברוח הקודש שאינה נכנסת עמו לקבורה. דבר אחר לפי שבא בידים ריקניות, אמר אליעזר עבד אבי אבא היו בידיו נזמים וצמידים ומגדנות, ואני אין בידי כלום. לפי שרדף אליפז בן עשו במצות אביו אחריו להורגו והשיגו, ולפי שגדל אליפז בחיקו של יצחק משך ידו. אמר לו מה אעשה לציווי של אבא, אמר לו יעקב טול מה שבידי, והעני חשוב כמת:

What makes Jacob weep is not his personal pain per se, but rather the fact that he has no gifts to give his kinswoman and host.  He knows that Eliezer brought great gifts on Isaac's behalf for his bride, Rebecca.  Jacob has arrived ostensibly empty handed -- without jewelry or money to show his appreciation.  The righteous man feels grief not for his own personal misfortune, but when he does not have enough to give others.  We also learn from Rashi's comment that part of the spiritual tragedy of poverty, especially the poverty of a refugee fleeing for his life, is that he feels he has no value when he has nothing to give.  To be alive in our tradition is to be hospitable and generous, and we are deprived of an essential part of our humanity when we have nothing to contribute.
         Of course, Jacob was not bereft of gifts.  He famously rolls back the stone on the well so that Rachel's flocks could drink.  He had his strength and his commitment to his cousin's and her animals' wellbeing.  The shepherds who were hanging around the well made excuses for letting their animals suffer from thirst.  Jacob, on the other hand, used all of his strength to care for his family and their flocks.  In a beautiful Hebrew word play, we see that the same verb that is used for "providing water" is used for "kissing."  Genesis is teaching us that providing love is analogous to providing water, the ultimate source and symbol of life in the Jewish tradition.  Jacob is allowed to retain a patina of pride because he still has the ability to provide love and life to the stranger and the loved one alike.
        This week let us focus on living a life that is noticed for its integrity and its positive contributions.  Let us dance as though everyone is watching, and live accordingly.  Let our lives be blessings and sources of life and love for others.  When we give, we affirm our humanity and the most important kind of wealth.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Beth Israel Chanukkah Party! December 13, 2015

Get ready for Chanukkah at Beth Israel Congregation!  

December 13, 2015 5:00-7:00 pm

We need your help in order to make our chanukkah party a success.  Please volunteer to help!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Yom Kippur Sermons - 5776

For those who could not make it to Beth Israel for Yom Kippur this year, my two sermons:

Gmar Hatimah Tovah! 
May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life and 
Enjoy a sweet 5776 together!