Home of the free, because of the brave (a series of images)

As Independence Day 2018 approached, I found myself inspired to create these little memes / mini-posters. They remind me not to give up on this country during these times of authoritarian fear.

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Continue reading “Home of the free, because of the brave (a series of images)”

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Really sick of being insulted

As a liberal rabbi, I am so sick of being ridiculed and insulted by people on the religious right. I get so full of anger that I see red, and all I want to do is fight back. And then I remember traditional Jewish wisdom on giving in to anger.

Here’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summarizing several classical rabbinic sources on the dangers of letting anger be one’s master:

“The life of those who can’t control their anger is not a life,” [the sages] said (Pesahim 113b). Resh Lakish said, “When a person becomes angry, if he is a sage his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet his prophecy departs from him” (Pesahim 66b). Maimonides said that when someone becomes angry it is as if he has become an idolater (Hilkhot Deot 2: 3). (For the entire piece, visit here.)

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 – 2013.

The general understanding of these texts, as I’ve been taught them, is not that we should try to suppress or banish the experience of feeling anger; rather, that we should beware of letting it be our guide. We will rarely make good decisions while in an angry frame of mind.

Continue reading “Really sick of being insulted”

Fighting back against family separation at the US-Mexico border

There are several actions that I’m seeing among progressive clergy networks and the Indivisible network. I just signed up with these folks and I encourage others to do so too (the image below is hyperlinked):

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Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center is helping these families, and they have an Amazon wish list that you can visit and buy needed items for them to distribute.

You can also donate to a bond fund that helps move forward the legal process of reuniting separated families.

This past weekend, I attended Shabbat services on Friday night at Congregation Beth Israel in Media, PA, where Rabbi Linda Potemkin read this poem by Rabbi Paul Kipnes: Continue reading “Fighting back against family separation at the US-Mexico border”

The gates of the ancient rabbis

This essay appeared in the RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, in 2014.

I’m guessing that many of us have given a d’var at some point that cited the passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 32b, that reads, “From the day that the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been closed . . . but even though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are not closed.”

I’ve always been struck by what this, and some of the surrounding passages in the Talmud, appear to reveal about the attitudes of the early rabbis towards God. For instance, right after this sha’aray dimah [gates of tears] passage, we also read, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has been established between Israel and their Father in Heaven.” (I left the male God imagery unaltered because it offers the poignant metaphor of a child unable to access his or her parent.)

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       Llagrimes (tears), pastel portrait by Robert Perez Palou.      By Rpp1948 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

As one studies the whole of this page of Talmud, one also finds passages that nevertheless offer reassurance that, with great effort and sincerity, we can still reach God and move God to compassion. For instance, “Every person who lengthens their prayer – their prayer will not be returned empty  (ayn tefilato chozeret ray-kam).” And, “If a person sees that s/he has prayed but it is unanswered, s/he should pray again, as it says in Scripture, ‘Wait for the Eternal, be strong and let your heart take courage,’ etc.” Continue reading “The gates of the ancient rabbis”

D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

This was a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2009.

In this week’s parashah we find high drama as Moses comes down from his 40 day stay atop Mount Sinai carrying shnai loochot ha-aydoot – two tablets of the covenant – loochot even – tablets of stone – k’tooveem b’etzba eloheem – inscribed with writing from the finger of Almighty.  You know what happens next.  As it says in the text, “The ETERNAL spoke to Moses: ‘Hurry down, for your people — note that now it’s your people, not my people — whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.  They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves an egel masecha — a molten calf, and they have bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'” 

And then comes one of my favorite phrases of divine exasperation. God tells Moses, “Am k’shay oref hu. I see that this is a stiff-necked people.” God tells Moses that God is considering destroying the Israelites, and Moses quickly pleads on their behalf, ultimately succeeding in persuading God to give them another chance. And then Moses turned and journeyed down that mountain, carrying the shnai loochot, the two stone tablets which were, according to the text, inscribed on both sides with the direct writing of God. 

When Moses finally arrived near the camp and saw the people reveling in idol worship and other lewd behaviors, he hurled the stone tablets from his hands and shattered them – v’yeeshbor otam – at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the golden calf made out of their jewelry and coins and burned it. Then he had it ground into powder, mixed into water, and he made the Israelites drink it. 

By the time we get towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, we are reading about Moses and the Jewish people’s second chance at the encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Chapter 34 of Exodus begins with the words p’sal lecha shnai loochot avanim ka-reeshonim — God says to Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones.”  P’sal the verb that means “carve” and “lecha” means for yourself. This is the beginning of Moses’ second journey up the mountain. This time he will bring stone tablets that he has carved himself (God had created the first set), and he will return with the text of the commandments and the covenant, bringing these sacred words to a more sobered people.

Rabbis over the centuries have taken a close look at this second set of tablets – the tablets we actually received, and through midrashic lenses they found many possible deeper lessons in the Torah’s account of this cosmic do-over. Some of the sages looked at this phrase, “p’sal lecha,” and considered how the Hebrew verb p’sal — to carve — could be read in different ways and offer up different meanings. One tradition states that the phrase, “p’sal lecha,” “carve for yourself,” actually hints at a different meaning. Instead of God saying to Moses, “carve for yourself” these two new stone tablets, if you read instead of the Hebrew word p’sal the related word pesolet, which means “leftovers,” then what you end up with is God saying to Moses, “the leftovers are for you.” What leftovers is God talking about? This midrash teaches that God was referring to the leftover bits and pieces of the highly valuable stone material that the first set of tablets were made up of. As God carved the letters into that first holy set of tablets, little bits and pieces of the stone fell onto the ground, and, according to this midrash, God told Moses to scoop them up and keep them, and sell them. The midrash says that Moses did just that, and in fact became very wealthy in the process!  But then the sages add that Moses, being Moses, didn’t care for the wealth or need it.  Continue reading “D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35”

Korach and revolution

In a free society, all of us are rebels against something.  In a society where freedom of religion is part of the social contract, every adult chooses which ideas, which denomination, which philosophy, which tribe they want to align themselves with.  And in doing so, each of us rebels against somebody else’s self-proclaimed authority. For some in the Jewish community, I am a rabbi. For others, I am a “rabbi.” For still others I am a heretic.  

The same can be said for any clergy person of any faith tradition. Ask a passionately devout Sunni to describe the heresy of Shi’ism and the threat it poses to the true understanding of Islam. Then ask a devout Shia to describe how Shi’ite Islam represents the true revelation of the faith.  Each narrative rebels against the other.

This week’s Torah portion tells the story of Judaism’s most famous rebel, Korach.  

Korach, along with two other tribal leaders, Datan and Abiram, challenge Moses and Aaron’s authority over the Israelites.  “You have too much power. The entire community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal One is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal one’s assembly?”  The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud depict Korach as having great skill in Jewish law. They describe him initiating a long, drawn out debate with Moses over detailed points of Jewish law, in which  Korach tries to entrap Moses using legislative slights of hand.

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Korach is a rebel who has come on the scene prepared for a coup d’etat.  He’s organized 250 leading figures to stand with him, and the first time he brings his grievances he does so in public, at a staged event designed to rally the people behind him and topple the regime.  He is seen by the tradition as the rebel with the gift of demagoguery. He claims to be standing up for a noble value – spiritual equality – as he tries to paint the established leaders as unfair and hypocritical.  Korach presents himself as a righteous whistle blower, and yet tradition holds him up as a fake.

Continue reading “Korach and revolution”