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!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rosh HaShanah Sermons

Rosh HaShanah 5776 Sermons

Proud to share my sermons from the past Rosh HaShanah.  Feel free to be in touch with questions, comments and challenges.

Erev Rosh HaShanah: Year in Review

Rosh HaShanah Day 1: Racism, Pain, and Hannah's Legacy

L'Shanah Tovah u'mitukah!!!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Colby Hillel Fall 2015 Newsletter

Check out Colby Hillel's newest newsletter!  It represents the multifaceted and diverse experiences of our many students.  I am proud of them for sharing from their many viewpoints!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Check Out Beth Israel's New Website!

New, Improved, and Mobile-Friendly!  Check it out!!


High Holidays in Waterville: 5776!

Rosh Hashanah:

Erev Rosh Hashanah Services: Sunday, September 13, 6pm at Beth Israel

Rosh Hashanah Community Meal: Sunday, September 13, 7pm at Beth Israel (RSVP to risaacs@colby.edu -- COST: [$25/person] send checks to Beth Israel Synagogue, PO Box 1882, Waterville Maine 04903.)

First Day Services: Monday, September 14, 9:30am at Beth Israel

Tashlich: Monday, September 14, 1:30pm at Thayer Park Boat Landing (across from Thayer Hospital)

Second Day Services: Tuesday, September 15, 9:30am at Beth Israel

Yom Kippur:

Kol Nidre: Tuesday, September 22, 6:25pm at Beth Israel

Yom Kippur Services: Wednesday, September 23, 9:15am at Beth Israel

Yom Kippur Mincha and Ne'ila Services: Wednesday, September 23, 5pm at Beth Israel

Beth Israel Congregation Break the Fast (Dairy Potluck): Wednesday, September 23, 7:15pm at Beth Israel (Kelsey St. entrance)

Colby Hillel Break the Fast: Wednesday, September 23, 7:00 pm in the Hillel Room (Colby College Pugh Center.)

Colby-Beth Israel Shabbat Potluck and Services in the Sukkah, Friday, October 2, 6pm at the Colby Sukkah (Across from the Marylow Parking lot, on Mayflower Hill)

Bagels and Singing in the Sukkah, Saturday, October 3, 11am at the sukkah

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah:

Shemini Atzeret Services (including Yizkor): Monday, October 5, 10am at Beth Israel

Dairy Potluck and Simchat Torah Services: Monday, October 5, 6pm at Beth Israel

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Gourmet Kosher Meal in Waterville Maine! Beth Israel Fundraiser on August 30, 2015

Beth Israel Congregation Annual Fundraiser!
Sunday, August 30, 2015
6:00 pm at Beth Israel

Enjoy a Gourmet Kosher Meal and Support Beth Israel!

Chef Tommy Darhower, of the James Beard-awarded Portland restaurant 555, Petite Jacqueline, and Evo (named one of Maine Eater's "Hottest Restaurants in Maine Now"), will prepare a multi-course feast!

Tickets will be $60 per person, and can be purchased via risaacs@colby.edu or 207-872-7551 

All are welcome and invited

Proceeds to be put towards an Alfond Foundation matching grant to make Beth Israel more energy efficient

Desserts will be provided by Acadia Cakes.
Full menu available online:


Friday, August 7, 2015

Not Because of Your Righteousness/Blessed Above the Nations: Parashat Eikev

     When do I feel most Zionist?  Usually at a gay pride parade in Israel.  I have been to several marches and parades in the Jewish State over years that I lived in there, and the many times I have visited.  It is at these events that I can be completely myself -- full, complete, joyous, and at peace.  I can affirm simultaneously 1) the beauty and grandeur of a country that provided the richest soil for the blooming of vibrant Hebrew culture and a refuge for the millions of Jews who were exiled from nations around the world and 2) my identity as a gay, feminist person.  In progressive circles in the West, you are often labeled a "bad Jew" if you defend and celebrate the existence of a refuge and homeland for your people, and its right to defend itself.  In too many Jewish and Israeli contexts, the needs and identities of queer folks are ignored or rendered of secondary importance to other "broader" concerns, like security and "unity". But for a few weeks or months a year, as gay pride flags adorn the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I still smile and feel deep satisfaction as I walk by the way, as I lie down, and as I rise up in my homeland.

Scene from my first Jerusalem gay pride march - Summer 2006

But then --  for the second time in a decade, a man attacks and ultimately kills another human being at the Jerusalem March for Pride and Tolerance in the name of righteousness and devotion to God.  He eroded the safety and sense of home queer folks feel in Israel.  And then, a few days later, Jewish terrorists burned a Palestinian baby alive in the name of righteousness and a devotion to God.  Whatever precarious safety that community felt before the attack, to fall asleep in and wake up alive, was gone.  I will never cease to be amazed and horrified by the damage, violence, and bloodshed that is done in the name of righteousness and devotion to God, the Source of All Life.

This week's Torah portion reminds us of the limits of our own righteousness and what it entitles us. In parashat Eikev, found in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the Israelites:
19:6You shall know that, not because of your righteousness, the Lord, your God, gives you this land to possess it; for you are a stiffnecked people.ווְיָדַעְתָּ כִּי לֹא בְצִדְקָתְךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף אָתָּה:
19: 7Remember do not forget, how you angered the Lord, your God, in the desert; from the day that you went out of the land of Egypt, until you came to this place, you have been rebelling against the Lord.זזְכֹר אַל תִּשְׁכַּח אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִקְצַפְתָּ אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמִּדְבָּר לְמִן הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָצָאתָ | מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַד בֹּאֲכֶם עַד הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה מַמְרִים הֱיִיתֶם עִם יְהֹוָה:

We did not inherit the land, nor do we possess it today, because of our righteousness.  We hold onto this refuge and citadel by the grace of God.  We can lose Eretz Yisrael if we are consumed by baseless hatred and seduced by idolatry, but our holdings are not related to our merit. We can lose this land if we kill, covet, hate, ignore the sovereignty of God, and oppress God's special wards -- the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.  We find in this week's portion the most repeated mitzvah in the Torah:

Deuteronomy 10:19 You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
 יטוַ-אֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

Rashi derives additional meaning from this core mitzvah:  [You shall love the stranger] for you were strangers: Do not reproach others with your own defect. — [B. M. 59b] כי גרים הייתם: מום שבך אל תאמר לחברך:

According to Rashi, while it is always wrong to oppress the defenseless individual in your midst, it is even more repugnant for those who have experienced vulnerability and homelessness to do it to others.  The Torah refuses to let us to forget -- you were a people hewn in the desert, homeless and helpless.  The crucibles of slavery and wandering impart upon the Jewish people a special responsibility to care for the stranger, and never use our newfound power to oppress, frighten, or murder.  Not in the name of righteousness, not in the name of Divine right, and certainly not out of love for God.

Parashat Eikev makes very clear to us that the Israelites' gifts are not the result of unique righteousness or perfection.  Moses reminds us of our past sins and the ones he knows we will commit in the future.  At the same time, this portion affirms the special covenant and love that God has for us despite our shortcomings. It teaches us that we can trust in God and hold hope for the future if we obey the Law and fulfill our mission to be a light until the nations:

7:14You shall be blessed above all peoples: There will be no sterile male or barren female among you or among your livestock.ידבָּרוּךְ תִּהְיֶה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ עָקָר וַעֲקָרָה וּבִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ:

7:17 You will say to yourself, "These nations are more numerous than I; how will I be able to inherit them"?יזכִּי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבְךָ רַבִּים הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִמֶּנִּי אֵיכָה אוּכַל לְהוֹרִישָׁם:
7:18You shall not fear them. You shall surely remember what the Lord, your God, did to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt:יחלֹא תִירָא מֵהֶם זָכֹר תִּזְכֹּר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכָל מִצְרָיִם:

With my chavruta, Sara,
Jerusalem Pride 2006
Our sins do not abrogate our covenant with God, or the Divine's love for the people Israel.  Same too with my connection to and love for the State of Israel.  The nation has its ups and downs, its points of light and its pools of darkness -- like any other diverse and free people.  This week's portion not only humbles us and reminds us of our weighty obligations, but also reminds us of our potential, of God's love for the people Israel, of the Divine's power to redeem us from our own errors, and of the value of committed relationships that can withstand transgressions.  I will not abandon my people during their time of need or when they struggle to confront hatred and evil in their midst.  Rather, I rededicate myself to my inheritance and to my people in love and hope, even when it is most challenging.  Just as God did not abandon our relationship in our darkest hour, I will not abandon my family during theirs.  My brothers and sisters in Israel have fashioned a home, refuge, and citadel for me where I can feel fully human and whole.  I will fight to keep that Israel alive, safe, and sustaining.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Power, Powerlessness, and Justice: Complicated Lessons from Parashat Dvarim

       "There shall be one Torah for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you." (Exodus 12:49)  At the center of the Torah's conception of justice is that there is one law for all individuals within the physical borders of Israel and among the Jewish people.  In order to create a just and orderly society, you need to have one legal system applied equally to all individuals.  On the face of it, this demand, and the values that support it, seem simple and fair.  We cannot make up laws on the spot depending on context or convenience, nor should be tip the scales of justice in favor of the rich, strong, or influential.
         However, the Torah does not just warn us against favoring the strong against the weak, but also against favoring the weak against the strong.  And when Rashi delves deeper into the Torah's warning, he forces us to see how justice can be perverted even with the best of intentions.  In Deuteronomy 1:17, we are instructed:

17You shall not favor persons in judgment; [rather] you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man, for the judgment is upon the Lord, and the case that is too difficult for you, bring to me, and I will hear it."

What does it mean to hear the "small just as the great?"   According to Rashi, there can be many meanings:
יזלֹא תַכִּירוּ פָנִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כַּקָּטֹן כַּגָּדֹל תִּשְׁמָעוּן לֹא תָגוּרוּ מִפְּנֵי אִישׁ כִּי הַמִּשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹהִים הוּא וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶׁה מִכֶּם תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו:
You shall hear the small just as the great: A case regarding a perutah [small coin] should be as important to you as [a case] regarding a hundred maneh [a large sum], so that if it [the former] is presented before you first, do not postpone it for last (San. 8a). Another explanation of “You shall hear the words of the small as you do those of the great,” as per the Targum [The words of the small you shall hear like the words of the great]: You shall not say: “This is a poor man, and his friend [opponent] is rich, and it is a mitzvah to support him [the poor man]. I will favor the poor man, and he will thus be supported respectably.” Another explanation: You shall not say,“How can I affront the honor of this rich man because of one dinar ? I will favor him now and when he goes outside [leaves the court] I will tell him, 'Give it to him [to the poor man], for you really owe it to him!’” (Sifrei)כקטן כגדול תשמעון: שיהא חביב עליך דין של פרוטה כדין של מאה מנה, שאם קדם ובא לפניך לא תסלקנו לאחרון. דבר אחר כקטן כגדול תשמעון, כתרגומו, שלא תאמר, זה עני הוא וחבירו עשיר ומצוה לפרנסו אזכה את העני ונמצא מתפרנס בנקיות. דבר אחר שלא תאמר היאך אני פוגם כבודו של עשיר זה בשביל דינר, אזכנו עכשיו, וכשיצא לחוץ אומר אני לו, תן לו שאתה חייב לו:

One reading of this verse teaches us that we should view all transgressions
 with equal weight, whether the amount of money is small or large.  From a Torah perspective, we should not let small transgressions slide and only take large ones seriously.  When trying to create a holy society worthy of God's presence, every mitzvah (commandment) and every averah (sin) need to be taken seriously.  Many small averot can culminate into a profoundly crooked society.
     However, beyond the issue of small crimes verses large crimes lay the issue of linking judgment to actual or perceived power, wealth, and status.  This singular ethical standard is quite controversial, especially in contemporary academic circles.  And to a certain extent this makes sense.  Should someone poor receive the same fine as a rich person if the fine affects them in deeply unequal ways?  If one nation has a strong and wealthy army, shouldn't they be held to a higher ethical standard than a nation without an army that uses terrorism as a form of resistance?  
     These challenges to the Torah's standard are not new, and many of them were addressed by the rabbis in Talmud, specifically in the tractates that deal with financial damages and criminal codes.  Jewish law becomes far more nuanced and sophisticated over time, in large part because the blunt tools provided by Scripture often failed to address the complex contours of real life.   
     At the same time, however, the Torah also teaches us an important lesson about justice, and highlights some of the problems with distributing justice based on perceived power, status, or wealth.  For one thing, our perceptions can often be flawed.  Power is complicated, rarely stable, and can express itself in unexpected ways.  If one people has the power to kill 20 people by blowing up a bus, and another people has power to drop a missile that kills 20 people on a beach, who is more powerful?  What if someone used to be rich and lost all of their money, but the judges on the court don't know his current financial status, and judge him according to his former wealth?  What if someone is wealthy, but friendless and held in contempt by most of her community?  What if someone is a police officer and respected in the community, but barely makes enough to sustain their family?  Who is powerful and who is powerless?
      Beyond the problem of evaluating the power of another individual or group of people, if we link perceived or actual power to judgment, our deliberation centers on evaluating privilege and not on the nature of the crime or its victims.  This type of deliberation not only moves the focus away from crime and punishment, but it also poisons discourse.  In circles where being oppressed has cache and power, parties compete for the position of greatest victim.  Neither party is encouraged to own up to their power and assume responsibility for their sins.  Neither party is encouraged to empower themselves.  Rather, we create a society of ressentiment,  justifying powerlessness and glorifying the licking of wounds instead of accountability, self-determination, and a mutual submission to the common good.  One does not need to look particularly far to see how this trend has polluted contemporary political discourse in our country (from both the political right and left), and made a mockery out of current political culture on college campuses. 
     The Torah cannot always provide the final or perfect ethical or legal standard for a just society.  If it could, there would be no need for a Mishnah, Talmud, Midrashim, or later legal codes and Responsa.  Over the generations, our scholars have had to challenge and refine the wisdom posited by the Torah in order to make it relevant and more fair.  At the same time, there are deep lessons to be learned from this foundational text, even if they are difficult to hear and accept.  Even though maintaining a single legal standard may be difficult and unpalatable at times, I believe it still is the best of all the available options. We've seen the alternative, and it seems to lead to a world that is no more just or holy as a result.  Sometimes, the older wisdom still holds the key to the most timeless and valuable truths.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 17, 2015

On Solidarity, Selfishness, and Respecting the Journey: Parashat Matot Massei

       Moses' life was one of constant pain and frustration.  He expected that in return for the blessings that the the Israelites received, they would submit to the will of God and actualize the lessons of Torah.  For most of his life, he was deeply disappointed.  In this week's portion, parashat Matot-Massei, Moses is yet again disappointed in the Jewish people acting in a way inconsistent with the lessons of their history and Torah.  In particular, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask for portions of the Land of Israel separate from the rest of the Israelites, and seem to be more concerned with locating quality pasture land for their livestock than with building cities for their children or standing in solidarity with the rest of the nation.  Both Moses and God were furious that they could be so selfish and materialistic.  Moses' anger isn't quelled until they promise that they will not take these lands until they have fought and made sure that every Israelite can inherit their portion.
          Obviously, it would have been better if those two tribes made evident their solidarity with the rest of the nation before making their request.  At the same time, it was clear that they learned from their leaders' anger.  In order to live in a way that truly shows an appreciation for the blessings and teachings they have received, they must make sure that everyone has their portion before taking possession of their own.  Someone who lives in a way consonant with Jewish values does not take for herself before making sure there is enough for everyone in her community, and that all have access to take what is theirs.  A Jew who exhibits understanding of Torah is not a hazer (a pig), taking the best for himself without regard for the needs of others.  A Jew who is committed to a Torah lifestyle does not put the "I" before the "we."  If there are two core Jewish texts that have inspired me in my work as a rabbi, they are, "You shall not separate yourself from the community," and "Each Jew is responsible for one another."  These two statements -- one from Hillel the Elder and the other from the Gemara -- affirm that communal responsibility is at the core of Jewish life, not individual fulfillment.  When we put God and community at the center of our decisions, we show respect for Torah, its Author, and those who received this holy text with us.
         That said, we are not always perfect.  Some of us (I am often guilty of this) are the first ones on the kiddush line, filling our plates without regard for how many other folks are in the room or how much is available. And we would often rather forget our past sins, where we were when we committed them, and the folks who rebuked us effectively so that we could become better versions of ourselves.  In the same way, the Israelites would have preferred to forget their years of forced wandering, the trials they faced, and all of the impediments that stood in between them and the Promised Land.  Rashi writes that the Torah reminds them of their wanderings in the Book of Numbers, not in order to shame them, but in order to encourage and comfort them.  Drawing upon the Midrash, he explains, "... R. Tanchuma expounds it in another way. It is analogous to a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all the stages of their journey, saying to him, “This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache etc.” - [Mid. Tanchuma Massei 3, Num. Rabbah 23:3]   God and Torah remind us of our journeys, even our most difficult ones, not in order to dredge up painful memories, but in order to remind us how far we've come, and how we've been cleansed and improved by the hardships we have faced.
          We are all on journeys to be better people, and to improve as a Jewish nation.  Let us remember our responsibility to put the community first, even when better pastures lay elsewhere, and even when we'd prefer to run away from the difficulties and messiness of living in community.  And let us also not bury our most painful memories (personal or communal.)  Without our trials and mistakes, we never learn nor do we grow.  Rather, let us ritualize the telling, and recall the pain with pride as proof of how much we've grown and how far we have come.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Interfaith Progressive Dinner: May 17, 2015

Please check out this incredible event.  I'm so pleased that Beth Israel Congregation will be participating this year.  Please contact Rabbi Isaacs if you can bake or help serve, set up, or clean up.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Educator and Artist-in-Residence in Waterville: Shirel Horovitz

Shirel Horovitz: Educator. Artist. Activist.
From Tel Aviv to Waterville, Maine

All are welcome!


- Monday, April 6th at 6:30 pm
Thai and Torah: Slavery and Liberation
(Hillel Room at Colby College - for Colby students only)

- Friday, April 10th at 4-5:30 pm. 
Shirel’s Welcome Reception
(Pugh Center) at Colby College

- Monday, April 13th at 7:00 pm
“Understanding Israel through Graffiti” 
(Diamond 141) at Colby College

- Thursday, April 16th at 7:00 pm. 
“Brokenness and Wholeness in the Jewish Tradition: A Workshop in Tikkun.”  
(Colby College Museum of Art)

- Monday, April 20 at 6:30 pm  
"Torah on Tap: The Spiritual Works of Rav Kook - The Father of Religious Zionism."
(Mainely Brews)

- Wednesday, April 22 at 12:00 pm 

“Religious Zionism: A Primer.” 

(Lovejoy 318) at Colby College

- Thursday, April 30 at 7:00 pm.    “Art and Activism: Discussion and Workshop.”   (Pugh Center) at Colby College

- Sunday, May 10 at 11:00 am.  "Bagel Brunch:Storytelling and Tradition " 
(Beth Israel Congregation - Waterville)

- Saturday, May 23 at 6:00 pm 
Waterville Tikkun Leil Shavuot 

(Beth Israel Congregation - Waterville)

**June 12-14, 2015 
Multiple Sessions at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life! Register here.**

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Silence is Complicity: A Lesson from the Talmud for Maine and Israel

      This past week, I was invited by the Maine NAACP's Rachel Talbot-Ross and Democratic Leader, Justin Alfond (who became bar mitzvah at Beth Israel Congregation) to speak out against racist comments posted on the facebook wall of a Maine State Senator.  There were many who claimed that an apology issued by this individual was sufficient, and that the body politic was not required to speak out on the record against his comments. We disagreed.  When asked to speak from a Jewish perspective, there was one quote from the Talmud that stood out to me time and time again, 

"שתיקה כהודאה דמיא" 
(יבמות פז ב, פח א)
Silence is the same as agreement

When we do not call out sin and publicly condemn it, it is as though we have committed the sin ourselves.  From an ethical and legal perspective, when we do not publicly distance ourselves from what is wrong, we are implicitly agreeing with it.
           The Jewish community has a long tradition of standing up against racism and intolerance.  The picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching at Selma is historic, and exemplifies an era of active Jewish involvement in the civil rights era.  That legacy continues until today with Jewish organizations and leaders who combat hate speech and activity directed toward a wide array of minority groups.  However, many of our representative organizations fall silent when it comes to racist speech in the world's only Jewish State, led by a Prime Minister who claims to represent all of world Jewry.  I claim that when we do not speak out against racism everywhere, especially in our homeland, we lose all moral credibility to speak out against bigotry anywhere.
            On the day of the Israeli election, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, released a video on his facebook page that implied that Arab citizens of Israel voting was a threat to the Jewish state.  Much of the world was outraged, and Arab citizens of Israel certainly took note.  The most heartbreaking response came from Lucy Aharish, a famous Israeli newscaster, Muslim citizen of Israel, and the woman chosen to light the torch on Israeli Independence Day at Har Herzl, Israel's national military cemetery. 

You can view the video here:   https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152840685932523&pnref=story

The most important thing she said was, "The next time that there is a murder of an Arab citizen, it will be as though [the murderer] was given a certification of kashrut from the Prime Minister that it is ok to hate Arabs."

When it comes to evaluating whether or not Netanyahu's words were racist, it is her opinion that carries the most weight with me.  I also take heart from Israel's incredible President, Ruby Rivlin from the Likud party, that was quite clear in his denunciation of the Prime Minister's statements:

"In [Rivlin's] meeting with representatives of the Joint List, he said, 'Everyone must be careful with their remarks, particularly those who are heard around the world...We experienced a turbulent, impassioned campaign,' said Rivlin. 'We heard Jews say harsh things about the Arab public. We cannot ignore equally harsh remarks from the Arab side. There is no room for such comments. We share one reality in the state in which we all live, and citizens cannot discriminate against one another.' Rivlin went on to say, 'Israel is defined as a Jewish state, and we cannot forget that it is democratic at the same time. I call on Jews and my Arab brothers to avoid incitement. It's clear that remarks from a head of state are heard differently and more clearly than someone else."

The President of Israel understands his responsibility as a representative of the entire State of Israel, and all of its citizens, Arab and Jewish, right-wing and left-wing.  He not only defends the values of Israel's Declaration of Independence, but also of Revisionist Zionism's founding father, Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinksy (the ideological father of Likud), who wrote this about his vision for the Jewish State:

"In every Cabinet where the Prime Minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab, and vice-versa. Proportional sharing by Jews and Arabs both in the charges and in the benefits of the State shall be the rule with regard to Parliamentary elections, civil and military service, and budgetary grants… Both Hebrew and Arabic shall be used with equal legal effect in Parliament, in the schools, and in general before any office or organ of the State… The Jewish and the Arab ethno-communities shall be recognized as autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law… 

After all, it is from Jewish sources that the world has learned how ‘the stranger within thy gates’ should be treated.” (The Jewish War Front 1940)

             Not all of the racism of this election came from the Israeli right, though it received more attention because it came from a sitting Prime Minister.  Likud is a party supported largely by Mizrahi Jews and there were some in the left-wing that expressed their outrage with the party in racially charged, repulsive terms.  The derision of religious Jews and Jews of color by many in Israel's left-wing is a moral outrage and has hobbled it politically for decades.  Progressives in Israel cannot be surprised that they have failed to win the hearts and minds of those whom they hold in contempt. 
             There are those who believe that a Jew in the Diaspora has no right to comment on anything inside Israel.  When the Prime Minister of Israel asserts that he represents all Jews, we are both allowed to speak out and duty-bound to do so.  Personally, as someone who consistently stands up for Israel in the public sphere, invests in Israel, and loves Israel deeply, I feel an even greater responsibility to acknowledge and condemn the racism that mars the soul of the Jewish State and its public image.  I do so by publicly standing in agreement with Israel's President and its founding fathers -- both right and left wing.  I will not be silent, I will not stand idly by, and I will not give the appearance of agreement.  I am proud that my professional union, The Rabbinical Assembly, has done the same.  I hope that more of the Jewish world will follow suit.

Shavua Tov.