Friday, December 5, 2014

Parashat Vayishlach: Wrestling

     This has been a week of wrestling. Wrestling with what it means to create an America where everyone can feel safe and dignified.  Wrestling with an America that does not always measure up to its own ideals and values.  Wrestling with a week of violence in Israel with human victims, aggressors, and heroes that force you to rethink who we are as a people and what is (im)possible in our homeland.  It has been a week of wrestling that will leave no one unscathed, unless of course, you choose to walk away from the struggle.  But to walk away with a struggle for justice in a world of complicated truths and competing values is to relinquish your identity as a child of Israel, the decedent of the world's most famous God-wrestler.
             This week in Parashat Vayishlach, we meet a Jacob fleeing his daemons: the judgment of his father, Isaac, and the rage of his brother Esau.  One night he meets an unlikely adversary in his dream (Genesis 32)

כה  וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.
25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו  וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.
26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
In a rare moment of solitude, without distractions or the voices of others, Jacob meets an "ish."  Jacob and the ish struggle, and Jacob will not let the ish go until he receives a blessing.  Jacob wins, receives the new name "Israel," or "God-wrestler," and emerges with a serious limp.  Our commentators disagree about who or what the ish was. Literally, ish means "man" or "person."  We often learn that the ish was an angel of God.  In midrash Genesis Rabbah, we are presented with the theory that the ish was a celestial patron of Esau trying to wrest back the birthright from Jacob.  Maimonides rejects the idea that the ish was an angel or an manifestation of Esau's will. He points out the fact that Jacob meets the dawn with a "real" physical limp, and people cannot really wrestle with angels.  Maimonides believes that  Jacob dreamed the ish, and his limp was a physical manifestation of a spiritual struggle.
         Indeed, Maimonides connects the word ish used in this portion with the famous saying from Pirke Avot (2:6),  "In a place where there are no men, be an ish, a man." When you are in a place where no one is a mensch or a good person, strive to be that one good person.  Maimonides asserts that Jacob was wrestling with a real man, and that real man was himself.  He needed to wrestle with himself and his daemons before he could merit the life of a patriarch.  When Jacob succeeds in wrestling with himself, and becomes a mesch, an ish, only then can he earn the name Israel and assume leadership of the Jewish people.
         I am sure that I am not the only rabbi that cannot help but juxtapose the wrestling of Jacob and the ish with the wrestling of Eric Garner with the police officer that killed him.  They are two difficult images that are simultaneously incongruent and bear some basic similarities.  Jacob wrestles with the ish and survives -- he struggled between good and evil, human and divine -- and came out bruised but stronger.  Eric Garner's last moments were spent struggling for his life, as a police office wrestled him to the ground.  He was strangled, and not provided the opportunity to survive a deep spiritual struggle with the Divine. He was a black man who struggled to survive physically in a world that condones  physical violence against him.  Both Jacob and Eric Garner wrestled with their daemons, but only one survived, and was provided with the opportunity to survive, grow, and thrive.  Some of us have the privilege to struggle with our internal adversaries to become the people we want to be -- and others need to fight just to keep breathing.
         So it is our obligation not only to be cognizant of that privilege, but to actually use it for something that helps those who are deprived of our choices.  We have the responsibility not just to recognize and acknowledge, but to wrestle with our own positions in society, our own responsibilities, our own apathy, and the unjust ways in which we take advantage of the many gifts we have received by virtue of birth.  The path of Judaism is a spiritual path that encourages us to wrestle with God and our daemons -- a struggle not for its own sake, but for repairing the deep and manifest brokenness of the world.  We have to struggle to be menschlich when no one else has the courage or the conviction to be a mensch.  
        Menschlikite is not just about being sweet and doing small mitzvot that soothe the conscience.  That is not the type of humanity that Pirke Avot challenges us to assume.  It is about confronting difficult truths, and acting in a way consistent with the high standards set forth for us by Torah.  It means giving a painful amount of our wealth away to those who cannot afford a decent defense.  It means devoting a painful amount of our time to challenge the laws and systemic injustices that terrorize people of color in our society.  It means showing extra kindness, understanding, and hospitality those who confront struggles beyond what we have the capability of imagining.  Being a mensch is about living with enough integrity and love to soften hearts harded by various forms of oppression (whether as victims, perpetrators, or both).  Through a leadership of love, personal integrity, and care, we must break hearts open to allow for healing and transformational change.
        One last vignette.  The past few weeks have felt hopeless and fraught in so many ways.  One point of light that has dispelled the darkness is the example of Mahmoud Abu Khadir.  His cousin was brutally murdered by Jewish extremists on his way home from mosque this summer, and those who perpetrated the crime have not yet received fair or equal punishment.  He happened to be at the Rami Levi supermarket this week when a Palestinian terrorist started to kill Jewish shoppers.  He was the one of the first people at the scene, and provided whatever kind of care and comfort he could to those who were wounded.  When a grateful and somewhat surprised Israeli, Jewish reporter asked him how he found it within himself to provide healing to Jews after what happened to his cousin this summer, his response was instructive, "That’s how I was taught to behave by my family...When someone is wounded, you help them. It doesn’t matter where they’re from." He added: “I was raised in a good family. I’m not at war. At work, when I see something like this, I have to help. It’s a matter of education: I believe that tomorrow the wounded man will see someone else and go help him. I hope that one day the situation will change and we will no longer have incidents such as this. But force brings more force and peace brings peace.” I'm sure that Mahmoud Abu Khadir had to wrestle on some level with his pain and living up to the values with which he was raised, but he succeeded, and was the ish that our world needed.
 ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש
In a place where there are no mensches, be a mensch

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, November 14, 2014

Love and Leadership: Lessons from Abraham's Legacy

           Is love an essential component of leadership?  Are our leaders required to love us or be loving people?  While not every leader in history has been a loving person, Abraham teaches us about the superiority of exercising leadership with love.  This week's portion, Chayyei Sarah, describes the deaths of the mother and father of the Jewish faith, Abraham and Sarah.  In the aftermath of their deaths, we learn a great deal about their legacies and characters.  After Sarah's death, Abraham is greatly grieved, but eventually marries another woman, Keturah.  According the rabbinic tradition, Keturah is a woman we have met before: Hagar.  She acquires the new name of Keturah, according to Rashi, because her righteous deeds adorn her like a crown.  Despite being banished from her home by Sarah (enthusiastically) and Abraham (reluctantly), she chooses to return to Abraham, marry him, and bear him more children.  Once Isaac is grown and Sarah has departed, Abraham tries to bring solace and healing to his relationship with Hagar.  Through love, he mends a deep hurt, and creates a new world with Keturah.
           We also learn in this portion, that after Abraham's death, Ishmael and Isaac reunite to accompany their father to his eternal resting place.  Both Ishmael and Isaac were sons who endured great pain at the hands of their father.  Isaac was almost sacrificed at the hands of his father, and Ishmael was banished from his home as a small boy with insufficient resources to survive.  And yet, despite the pain they endured, they found a way to come together and show their father the respect he deserved as a flawed parent and a legendary leader.
          What was it that made Abraham so extraordinary?  Close reading of the text gives us some clues.  My JTS Dean, Rabbi Danny Nevins, brought some extraordinary features of this text to light for me.  When Abraham first leaves Haran, he refers to God as Elohei Shamim, God of heaven.  However, when Eliezer is sent to find a wife for Isaac, he refers to God as Elohei Shamaim va'aretz: God of heaven and earth.  How has the world changed between these two events?  Over the course of Abraham's journey from Haran to the Land of Israel, he brings God to earth through the teaching of Torah.  Both he and Sarah, "make souls in Haran," teaching Torah and spreading the faith of Israel.  He serves food to strangers, and puts his own life on the line to contend for strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Through his examples of hospitality, strength, and audacity, he brings a moral voice to the desert.
          The famous Hasidic Maggid, Dov Bear takes the exemplary nature of Abraham's life one step further, "Abraham's entire body became a chariot for the divine qualities of love, and he caused all creates to become accustomed to God's divinity and love.  So that love could exist even in the land, and not only in heaven." An essential component of transformative Jewish leadership is serving as a vessel and a conduit of God's love from heaven to earth.  When you show love and care to the people you hope to lead, you form relationships strong enough to endure the challenges of serious leadership: transforming how people think, breaking bad habits, encouraging others to take productive risks, losing a familiar way of life, unearthing difficult systemic problems, raising difficult questions, and working hard to create a better world.
          Leadership is often described as a confrontational affair.  American politics after all has become something of a blood sport.  But a position does not make someone a leader, nor does passion for a cause.  Leadership requires the delicate and difficult work of leading people to become better versions of themselves, and coming together to fix deep-seeded problems and complete Creation.  Without love, this process is significantly more difficult, if not impossible.  Love for the people you seek to change can be difficult to muster and express, but at least in a Jewish context, it is a core component of cultivating a strong, transformational, covenanted community.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Pilgrimage in a Tourist Age: The Case of Birthright Israel: Monday, Nov. 17 at 5:00 pm

Since 1999, hundreds of thousands of young American Jews have visited Israel on an all-expense-paid 10-day pilgrimage-tour known as Birthright Israel. The most elaborate of the state-supported homeland tours that are cropping up all over the world, this half-billion-dollar venture seeks to deepen the ties binding the Jewish Diaspora to Israel. But unlike Jewish pilgrimages of millennia past, Birthright Israel adopts and adapts the practices of modern mass tourism. What happens when a state looks to tourism to create a new pilgrimage ritual for the 21st century?

Next Monday, in conjunction with my seminar on Pilgrimage and the Jewish Studies program, we are hosting a lecture by Shaul Kelner from Vanderbilt University on "Pilgrimage in a Tourist Age: The Case of Birthright Israel."

The lecture will take place Monday, Nov. 17 at 5:00 pm in Parker Reed Room, Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center and will be followed by a dinner/discussion. If you would like to attend (open to all and free of charge), please RSVP by today, 12 November, to David Freidenreich, email:

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Colby-Bowdoin-Bates-Beth Israel-Beth El Shabbaton: November 7-8, 2014 at Colby College

Join us at the second annual Colby-Bowdoin-Bates-

November 7-8, 2014

Join us for Kabbalat Shabbat led by the Jewish bluegrass band, Jewgrass.  RSVP on facebook.  

Schedule of Events:

Friday, November 7, 2014
  • Catered dinner in the Colby College Alumni Center (Parker Reed Room) at 6:00 pm
  • Kabbalat Shabbat services with Jewgrass at 7:00 pm
Saturday, November 8, 2014
  • Prayer hike at Colby College at 10:00 am.  (Meet outside the president's house on Mayflower Hill - parking in Marylow lot.)
  • Open Shabbat lunch at Rabbi Isaacs' and Mel's apartment at 12:30 pm (Williams Dorm in the Hillside Complex.)
  • Shabbat singing and text study at 1:45 pm (Williams Dorm in Hillside Complex)
  • Klezmer Kabbalat Shabbat led by Rabbi Sruli Dresner and Lisa Mayer at 5:30 pm. (Pugh Center.)

Sponsors: Colby, Bowdoin, and Bates Hillels.  Beth Israel (Waterville) and Beth El (Augusta). Pugh Community Board and Committee for Educational and Cultural Events.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Private Journeys with Public Meaning: Parashat Lech L'cha

 Our faith begins with the singular journey of a man called by God to rebel against his parents, and journey to an unknown land.  In this week's parasha, God gives Avram a personal directive that changes the course of history:

1And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.

א. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ:
RASHI:Go forth: Heb. לֶךְ לְךָ, lit. go to you, for your benefit and for your good, and there I will make you into a great nation, but here, you will not merit to have children. Moreover, I will make your character known in the world. — [from Rosh Hashanah 16b, Tan.]לך לך: להנאתך ולטובתך, ושם אעשך לגוי גדול, וכאן אי אתה זוכה לבנים. ועוד שאודיע טבעך בעולם:

God's instruction to Avram raises many important questions.  One of the most provocative God's demands is that Avram leave home in order to fulfill his destiny.  Why couldn't Avram think globally and act locally?  Why did he need to separate himself from his family of origin to fulfill the will of a God who demands that every individual honor his parents?  
            Rashi provides an interesting answer to these questions: Avram must journey in order to provide a personal example to the peoples of the world.  While God first assures Avram that he will not have to sacrifice financial stability or a future family in order to go on this great journey, God also then tells Avram that he needs to "make his character/nature known in the world."  As the first Jew, Avram assumes the profound responsibility to showcasing a life of ethical monotheism and a new kind of religious leadership.  Lech L'cha is the story of a personal journey of faith with public, global, historic implications.
           The interplay between personal journeys of faith and public responsibility is one that shapes the contours of our tradition and practice.  This week, I was studying the laws of Hanukkah and came across a beautiful and profound halacha related to when we light hanukkah candles.  We are required to light the hanukkah candles as the sun is setting because it is the time when folks are returning home from work, and can see the candles lit in the doorways of their neighbors (O.H. 672).  When we light the candles in our personal homes to bring light and joy to our families, we must also take into account when our neighbors can see this light. It is our obligation to ensure that as many people as possible in the community can recall the hanukkah miracle.  Our personal household practice of the holiday is inextricably linked to the mitzvah of persumei nisah (the publication of the miracle.)
           Avram had to take a personal journey (which soon became a joint journey with Sarai) to become the leader that the Israelites needed.  But Avram's journey was not exclusively or even primarily a journey of personal growth and exploration -- it was about providing a new type of role model in the world.  It was about showcasing a new kind of life in relationship with a singular God who demanded high standards for behavior and leadership.  Avram was a man who undertook a personal trek to show a public example, and as his children, we should emulate his example: recalling always that we do not live lives only for personal growth and joy, but also to shine the light of Torah for as many people as possible.

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Stunning Song for Sukkot: Tikun HaGeshem

By one of my favorite Israeli musicians, Yonatan Razel

Taken from our tradition prayer for geshem, rain.

MOADIM L'SIMCHA!!!  מועדים לשמחה

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rosh HaShanah 5775 Sermons

Ron Shoshani: Tel Aviv Port at Sunset

I am pleased to share my sermons from this past Rosh HaShanah, touching on a variety of topics close to the heart our community.

Erev Rosh HaShanah sermon: Jewish Waterville Year in Review.

As always, happy to hear your thoughts, questions, and critiques.  Feel free to share.

Shanah Tovah u'mitukah (A happy and sweet new year), and Gmar Hatimah Tovah (May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life!) 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rosh HaShanah coverage in the Sentinel!

A beautiful article about Rosh HaShanah preparations at Beth El Augusta and at Beth Israel Waterville. Many thanks to the paper for a great picture of Colby Hillel senior, Sarah Rockford and me in our refurbished classroom.

L'Shanah Tovah!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Rosh HaShanah Piyut

A stunningly gorgeous piyyut (liturgical poem put to music) by Ibn Gvirol to get us ready for Rosh HaShanah.  May this year be sweet, and may the coming days give us opportunity to reflect, rejoice, and renew ourselves.

Shanah Tovah u'mitukah!!


Translation provided by Piyut North America:

Humble of spirit, humble the knee, and statue I approach you with much fear and awe.
In front of You, I consider myself Like a worm, small in the ground.
 You fill the world, there is no end to Your greatness, Can one like me praise you? And with what? The path in not sufficient for angels on high And for myself, how much more so.
 You have brought good and magnified mercies,
Wherefore the soul shall magnify your praise

Monday, September 22, 2014

Colby College Hillel Fall 2014 Newsletter

Shanah Tovah from Waterville!

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.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Jewish Theology Series: Rav Kook on Thursday, May 15th at 6 pm

Final Jewish Theology Class: May 15, 2014
Thai Bistro, downtown Waterville.
6:00 pm

We will explore the thought of Rav Kook, the father of religious Zionism.  How did contemporary Zionism, a movement started and led largely by secular Jews, come to meld with religious Judaism?  How did he envision a Jewish state where religious and secular Jews could live and thrive together?  And how does religious Zionism fit into the larger picture of Torah observant Judaism?   
Come and learn, discuss, and debate with us!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Reflections on Yom Ha'atzmaut

There are times when I commit the ultimate sin:  I lose hope.  I read the Israeli and American media coverage of Israel, and I think -- there is no way that Israel can handle its many challenges, domestic and foreign.  There are times when I am co-opted by the bias against the Jewish State, and I can only see the negative, the hardships, and the ostensible mistakes.

And then I close my eyes, and remember what it is to be there.  I recall the incredible people who shaped my life for the years I lived there -- the thoughtful and innovative students at Ben Gurion University Hillel who were blunt and introspective about their challenges in realizing Israel's potential, the American immigrants in Jerusalem fighting for a more egalitarian society and place for secular culture in Israel's capital city, my teachers at the Hebrew Union College who taught me not only the intricacies of Hebrew grammar, but how to continue teaching when your husband is on the battlefield in Lebanon, the secular Israelis claiming and reinventing Judaism in Tel Aviv...  I remember the late night discussions with Israelis of all political and ethnic backgrounds about the struggle to build a country, defend it, and retain a sense of self in the most ethically challenging wars one could imagine.  I remember one of the most important lessons that I love hearing from Yehudit Ravitz, "the things you can see from here, you can't see from there."

When I am there, I am ebullient and inspired by the evolution and flourishing of Hebrew culture, by the pride and security I feel -- a result of the fact that through Zionism we have taken our fate into our own hands.  As a people, we have have taken on the necessary challenge of shaping and securing our own future in the only land we can call our own.  No act of terror or war can undermine that deep sense of security and profound spiritual comfort that I carry with me -- they run much deeper than a temporary moments of aggression.  I am well aware that Israel is not perfect, but it is extraordinary. I am reminded of that fact each time I discover another story of an incredible Israeli citizen or enterprise making the world a better place despite facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

There are times, when even in America, I encounter the stories of Israel that affirm and feed my faith in the Jewish State.  Below is a story of a soldier younger than most of my students at Colby who tends to injured Syrian refugees on the Israeli border.  She is humble, guided by Jewish values, and courageous.  Honored by President Shimon Peres today on Israel's 66th birthday, she showcases Israel's greatest and only natural resource: it's amazing citizens.  Her story, among so many others, brings me to where I need to be this day: proud to be a Jew, proud to be a Zionist, and deeply thankful that I live in a world where Israel exists and achieves the miraculous every day.

Let us remember the words of president John F. Kennedy on this incredible day, "For Israel was not created in order to disappear - Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom; and no area of the world has ever had an overabundance of democracy and freedom."

May we all rejoice in Israel's past, present, and incredible future today.  Yom Ha'atzmaut Sameach!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ethnocentrism vs. Striving for Holiness: Lessons from Parashat Emor

   Are we better than everyone else?  So often in Jewish contexts, we refer to ourselves as “chosen,” “a light unto the nations,” or “a holy people, set apart.”  But often, as English speakers or as folks not listening carefully enough, we miss important nuances in our Hebrew texts.  We are now in the middle of Leviticus, the book of the Bible that most intensely focuses on holiness.  In last week’s portion,
parashat Kedoshim we are told, “you shall be a holy people.”  In this week’s portion, parashat Emor, we are given on instructions on how the priestly class should attain the holiness needed for their work.  We learn in the following in Leviticus 21:6, and in Rashi’s commentary:

21:6. They [the priests] shall be holy to their God, and they shall not desecrate their God's Name, for they offer up the fire offerings of the Lord, the food offering of their God, so they shall be holy.
ו. קְדשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם כִּי אֶת אִשֵּׁי יְהֹוָה לֶחֶם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֵם מַקְרִיבִם וְהָיוּ קֹדֶשׁ:
RASHI: They shall be holy: [Since Scripture does not state “They are holy,” but rather “They shall be holy,” it means that if kohanim wish to defile themselves over the dead and thereby desecrate their holiness]-against their will, the court must [prevent them from doing so, and thereby] sanctify them in this respect. — [Mizrachi; Torath Kohanim 21:13]
קדשים יהיו: על כרחם יקדישום בית דין בכך:
Taken from

The Children of Israel and our priestly leaders are not inherently holy -- we are commanded to act in accordance with Law in order to attain holiness and illumine the world.  Holiness, specialness, luminescence are not gifts of birth; they are hard won attributes gained through a life of mitzvot.  We all have the choice to live a life of integrity and purity or to choose a path of defilement and shame.  Our choices not only affect our lives, but the entire moral identity of our people.  It is for that reason that Rashi teaches us that the (non-priestly) rabbinical courts are responsible for guiding the priests toward a life in accordance with the Divine Will and ritual purity.

It is not a coincidence that last week’s Torah portion is paired with a very strongly worded hafatarah from the Book of Amos.  In Amos 9:7-8, God has strong words for a Jewish community that believed it was inherently special and beyond rebuke:

ז  הֲלוֹא כִבְנֵי כֻשִׁיִּים אַתֶּם לִי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, נְאֻם-יְהוָה:  הֲלוֹא אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, הֶעֱלֵיתִי מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וּפְלִשְׁתִּיִּים מִכַּפְתּוֹר, וַאֲרָם מִקִּיר.
7 Are you not like the Ethiopians, O children of Israel? said the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?
ח  הִנֵּה עֵינֵי אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, בַּמַּמְלָכָה הַחַטָּאָה, וְהִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֹתָהּ, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:  אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא הַשְׁמֵיד אַשְׁמִיד אֶת-בֵּית יַעֲקֹב--נְאֻם-יְהוָה.
8 Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from off the face of the earth; saving that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, saith the LORD.

Many peoples, God says, I have redeemed from slavery.  They are all my children, and they have all had their exoduses.  If you sin, you shall be punished.  If you correct your ways, you will be taken back in love.  This is the human journey, and in my Divine Court, you do not stand on any pedestal.

As Jews, we are a people drawn together by a common mission to achieve holiness, not a people connected by the foolish belief that we are beyond frailty.  When we fall into the trap of ethnocentrism, we not only sin against our fellow human beings, but we also instantly betray our foundational mission.  We must always remember our responsibility to imitate God’s ways -- and to remind ourselves constantly -- we are not yet there.