Friday, December 21, 2012

Reflections on Job and Sandy Hook

            As a rabbi, you are often expected to have the right words to share at the most painful and delicate times.  In times of death, sickness, and suffering, our communities look to us for words of depth, consolation, and understanding.  In the wake of the Sandy Hook killings, the internet was replete with editorials, sermons, prayers, and other words to express remorse, outrage, and deeply held beliefs.  No small number of those pieces were authored and shared by clergy and people of faith, seeking to bring clarity and comfort to a situation that defied our basic senses of decency and morality.  However, it was a moment where I chose to stay silent.  In a world where we are expected to be in touch at every moment, I felt the need before this Shabbat to explain why I did not respond immediately to this tragedy, and what I seek to convey through my initial silence.
            As the news came in about this terrible event, and the reactions began to roll in rapidly over email and facebook, I thought immediately of the story of Job.  This story came to mind not only because it was an example of senseless suffering, but also because of its role in the creation of Jewish mourning rituals.  The friends of Job provide examples of praiseworthy and troubling behavior in the face of tragedy.  One of the most beautiful and wise Jewish mourning rituals is that we do not speak to a mourner until they have chosen to speak to us.  The friends of Job sat in silence for seven days with Job after his loss, which our sages deem the only appropriate, helpful, and tasteful response in the face of suffering.  His friends make the tragic mistake later in the story when they begin to theorize and provide theological reasons for why Job suffers.  Even if it was their desire to comfort, in fact, they only brought greater misery to a man who truly did nothing wrong.
            Most, if not all of us, have an urge to provide explanations for why bad things happen.  Some of those explanations have more merit than others.  However, in my experience, “doing theology” in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy is rarely therapeutic or helpful.  Rather, listening, sitting with those in pain, and allowing ourselves to feel the large complex of emotions that wash over us are better first steps.  This tragedy was caused by a wide range of factors, and it left in its wake overwhelming destruction and confusion.  In our 24 hour news cycle world, many of us feel compelled to analyze every bit of information right away, no matter how incomplete our understanding or how numerous and varied its consequences.  However, I think we are better served by following the first steps of Job’s fellows, sitting for a while in silence.  Silence is not always an expression of cowardice or confusion – it often communicates the most profound senses of understanding, humility, and compassion.
            Additionally, Beth Israel is a congregation that is profoundly ideologically diverse.  Our community has members that fall on all points on the political spectrum by circumstance and by design.  As a rabbi, I am deeply proud of the fact that people from so many different backgrounds come together to learn, pray, and celebrate.  It is one of my primary goals as a rabbi to ensure that no one feels as though there is a political line or litmus test to be a member at Beth Israel.  We are a rural congregation, and as a result, we have many more members who are gun owners than at your average urban or suburban synagogue.  I do not believe that there is one ethical or uniquely Jewish approach to public policy when it comes to gun ownership.  As with most topics in Jewish literature and law, we can find a wide variety of conflicting opinions and values within our tradition that can be applied in a multiplicity of ways to contemporary political issues.  My hope and intention as a rabbi is that our congregants examine these issues through the lenses of Jewish texts and values, and use the ethical and intellectual tools of our tradition to come to well-reasoned and moral conclusions.
            Yes, tragedies can bring certain issues to the foreground that need to be discussed more thoroughly and thoughtfully. Yes, dark moments remind us to hug our kids a little tighter and be more vigilant about their safety.  However, it is my hope and prayer that as a faith community we are not moved primarily by acts of egregious aggression, violence, and selfishness, but through mitzvot, learning, and love.  When we allow the acts of murderous and narcissistic individuals to set the agenda, we are partially fulfilling their deepest desires.  Let us set our own agenda, and speak and sing out when we are inspired by the growth, joy, curiosity, and commitment of our holy community.

May the memories of the righteous souls that were lost serve as eternal blessings, and may all who mourn them find comfort.  Zichronam L’vracha.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Online Talmud Class 2: When a Fetus Wants Pork

Our next Talmud class will be tomorrow night at 7:30 pm.

Our topic will be: What to do when a fetus wants pork?  What an interesting question...

You can access Tractate Yoma here.  We will be beginning in the middle of page 82a.

Here are the instructions on how to prepare your computer:

and click on “Install voice and video chat”. It will take a few minutes, so let it finish its installation. Depending on your computer, you may have to restart before it will work.
2) Go to

and sign in with your gmail account if you have one (if not, click on ‘sign up’ at the top)
a. It will ask you to sign up for Google+…make sure you do this!

3) When it asks you to ‘add people’, search for “Rachel Isaacs” and add me! (it’s the one with a picture of me in a black robe and red academic scarf -- see above.)

4) A half hour before the class, I will send out an email to everyone of my google+ friends with a link to the class. Click on the link and wait to see me!!

Jewish Law Class 3: Access Texts

You can get advanced access to our next text for Jewish Law here.

Our topic will be: "When can I flip the switch?: Conservative Approaches to Electricity on Shabbat."

See you all at Selah Tea Cafe at 6:30 pm this Thursday.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Living Joseph's Lessons in Waterville: Parashat Miketz

            Last night was one of the most significant and humbling experiences in my rabbinate. Four generations of Beth Israel congregants and Colby students went to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter for a hanukkah concert and mini party. The most important preparation I did with the Hebrew school students was not memorizing every word of Ma Otzur (Rock of Ages) or learning the appropriate way to light a menorah. It was guiding the several conversations we had about what to expect at the shelter. In the weeks leading up to our program, parents and I needed to field many important and frank questions: "What will they look like?" "Do they dress like us?", "How will they act?" "Should we be scared?", "Why are they homeless?" These discussions, I believe, were some of the most crucial in preparing them for Jewish adulthood. The conclusion that we came to together was that this: the greatest gifts that we can give to those in need are to act normally, be kind and attentive, and afford dignity to everyone we encounter, especially when others fail to do so.
          In parashat miketz, Joseph also encounters a world he does not know well, but succeeds in bringing light, understanding, and comfort to Pharaoh.  The Torah and our greatest commentators provide us with several hints as to why Joseph succeeds in bringing peace to Pharaoh when the greatest magicians in Egypt fail.  In Genesis 41:11, the cup bearer tells Pharaoh why Joseph was such a renowned and respected interpreter in prison: Joseph provided an interpretation that was specific and related to each individual dream.  Joseph did not come in with preconceived notions of what each dream would be, or use the same tired tools to explain each dream in a generic fashion.  He encountered each individual anew and without prejudice.  With the help of God, a clear mind, and good listening skills, he could provide true peace to those who struggled with spiritual pain.
         This theme is repeated in Genesis 41:15 when Pharaoh pulls Joseph out of jail to interpret his dream:

15. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it, but I have heard it said of you [that] you understand a dream, to interpret it."

This is how Rashi interprets this verse:
טו. וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אֶל יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וּפֹתֵר אֵין אֹתוֹ וַאֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי עָלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר תִּשְׁמַע חֲלוֹם לִפְתֹּר אֹתוֹ:
you understand a dream, to interpret it: Heb. תִּשְׁמַע. You listen to and understand a dream, to interpret it.תשמע חלום לפתור אותו: תאזין ותבין חלום 

The Hebrew word tishma is often mistranslated into English as "you understand," but in fact means, "you listen."  Whether it was due to hubris, fear, or lack of practice, the Egyptian magicians failed to listen.  Certainly God's help and Joseph's talent played a part in his success, but the most important factor in Joseph's ability to help was his commitment to listening.  Not magic, not preconceived notions of what ailed others, not a false certainty about how to help.  It was Joseph's listening that distinguished him and made him useful to others.
        Finally, the Kli Yakar gives us some powerful and unique insight into Joseph's success.  In Genesis 41:8, if we read the verse carefully, it tells us something significant about the magicians.  It says that they did not interpret the dream for pharaoh. According to the Kli Yakar, they did know what the dream meant, but, "they did not want to deliver this bad news.  That is why it says "for pharaoh" -- they did not share the truth with him, but they did with each other."  The magicians were not willing to be real and honest with pharaoh because they perceived him as "other" and someone to fear.  They delivered niceties and false versions of themselves instead of interacting with him as a real person in spiritual distress.  Even though Joseph was a lowly Hebrew prisoner, or maybe even because of it, he chose to treat Pharaoh like any other man struggling with nightmares.  He brought the wisdom and direction of God to their encounter, and delivered the message with courage and clarity.  Joseph afforded Pharaoh true dignity by presenting an honest, truthful, and authentic version of himself.
        The greatest moments last night did not occur while we were singing mi yimalel, or dancing to sivivon, or passing out doughnuts.  They transpired when the presentation was over and all of the Beth Israel Hebrew school kids, their parents, and a couple of Colby students got down on the floor to play dreidel with the kids at the homeless shelter. They happened during the spontaneous conversations that we had with the families about the meaning of hanukkah, what life was like at the shelter, and listening to their stories.  What truly brought light to that night was a group of folks in Waterville being real with one another, and sharing a few moments of authentic, natural joy.

This Hanukkah let us remember the legacy of our father Joseph, and the wise words of A.D. Gordon, "There will never be a victory of light over darkness as long as we don't express the simple truth. We cannot fight the darkness. Rather it is incumbent upon us to increase the light." 

Chag Sameach.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Great New Hanukkah Video!

From NOAM, the Israeli Conservative Youth Group!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hanukkah Happenings at Beth Israel Congregation!

Beth Israel Congregation Hanukkah Party will be at 4:30 pm -6:30 pm this Sunday afternoon (December 9, 2012).  There will be games, crafts, sufganiot, and lots of latkes!  If you want to help set up or cook, email Rabbi Isaacs!  It will be a dairy, potluck event!

 Beth Israel Congregation will be performing a small Hanukkah concert at the Mid-Maine Shelter on Thursday, December 13th, 2012 at 7 pm. We'll light the menorah, bring treats, tell the story of Hanukkah, and sing! If you'd like to spread the light with us, please let me know! Anyone can join.