Thursday, May 28, 2015

Naso, Privilege and Desire

In ancient times we were divided by classes and tribes. In fact the reason why King David chose Jerusalem as the capital of our ancient land was because the city was ruled by no one tribe. It was the Washington, D.C. of ancient days.

The Torah offers a record of these divisions. “All the Levites whom Moses, Aaron, and the chieftains of Israel recorded by the clans of their ancestral houses, from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who were subject to the duties of service and porterage relating to the Tent of Meeting…” (Numbers 4:46)

The Levites were charged with attending to the sacrificial rituals. The Cohenim, priests, were the most privileged of this tribe. In a traditional synagogue the aliyas are still awarded by this division: Cohen, Levite and Israelite. And on the High Holidays the Cohenim rise to bless their congregation. These honors are not earned. They are a matter of birth.

With the development of rabbinic Judaism, following the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis eliminated most of these tribal distinctions. Privilege was earned. It became instead a matter of learning. If you studied enough, if your Hebrew was proficient and your knowledge sufficient, you could lead prayer services. A serious Jewish life, a deepened Jewish experience, became open to all who showed commitment and desire.

The Torah became not the provenance of a cherished few, but instead the possession of all. In that moment we became the people of the book and a “kingdom of priests.” We must continue to earn this title.

Rabbi Akiva did not start out as the greatest of rabbinic sages. In fact his father in law, Kalba Savua, rejected him as a suitor for his beloved daughter Rachel because Akiva came from such a lowly station. He was a mere shepherd and worked for the wealthy Kalba Savua. Legend suggests that he began his rabbinic studies without even knowing the alef-bet. And yet he studied and learned. Through hard work and devotion he became the greatest of rabbis.

His wife Rachel in turn remained devoted to Akiva even after her father cut them off. They were so impoverished, the Talmud suggests, that she was even forced to sell her hair for food. The privileged Kalba Savua rejected Akiva the shepherd. But then twelve years later Akiva returned with thousands of students. Kalba Savua now opened his arms to his son in law.

Privilege and station are earned through learning.

We discover that our rabbinic forebears upended the Bible’s system of class and tribes. Merit was achieved through knowledge. A meritocracy was born. Its foundation remains study and learning.

This is why Jews continue to have such a love affair with American democracy. Success is not a matter of birth. It is not a matter of tribe or class. It is instead a matter of learning. It is a matter of hard work and desire.

In order for a meritocracy to be sustained two things must be maintained. The gates of study must be open to each and every person regardless of lineage. And perhaps even more important, the heart of each and every person must be open to learning.

It begins not with birth but with desire.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Memorial Day's Fallen

On Monday our nation will observe Memorial Day.  Its barbeques and beach parties belie the day’s somber theme.  Like the Shavuot that precedes it its meaning and import is forgotten.  Memorial Day is a day intended to remember and mourn those who were killed while serving our country, those who died defending the land we call home.   Among the many thousands I urge you to take these names into your hearts.  These are the names of the 50 American Jewish casualties of our wars since 9-11 and although these names are no more precious than the thousands of others casualties they hold a special place in our hearts as American Jews.

In addition I commend this article about the Normandy Kaddish Project. My cousin and fellow Long Islander Alan Weinschel has made it his mission to photograph the 149 Jewish gravestones on Normandy Beach.  He has called us to remember these names on the Shabbat closest to the anniversary of D-Day.  

May the many sacrifices we recall on this Memorial Day strengthen our commitment to American ideals.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Shavuot: The Torah's Many Faces and Multiple Voices

Saturday evening begins the holiday of Shavuot. It remains an orphan among Jewish holidays. Passover with its glorious seder is more compelling. Even Sukkot with its back to nature like pull offers more. The High Holidays with their grandeur and majesty beckon us to attend. Shavuot appears forgotten. And yet Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Could there be a greater theme?

The moment of the giving of our Torah, zman matan torateinu, was an extraordinary event. “All the people saw the thunder and the lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.” (Exodus 20:15) It was so miraculous that the people saw what normally could only be heard. They saw thunder! I wonder. Do we still retreat from the Torah?

Shavuot remains distant. The midrash suggests a cure. “All the people saw”—sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning. How many sounds could there have been, and how many flashes of lightning? Rather, what it means is, each person heard according to his (or her) capacity, as it is written in the Psalms: “The voice of the Lord is koach—strength or capacity.”

Each of us must find our own path to Torah. Even though we read Torah in community, even though Shavuot is celebrated as a congregation, the way into finding our Torah is found within our own heart. It begins within our own minds. It begins by inclining our ears toward the gift of Torah—matan Torah.

The tradition also teaches that there are seventy faces of the Torah, shivim panim latorah. This is often explained to mean that there are seventy different ways of reading our most sacred text, but on this occasion I prefer to understand this to mean that there are seventy different pathways. I recognize that such numbers might appear overwhelming or even off putting, but I hope instead to see it as welcoming.

We can each find its face. We can each discover its voice within our own heart. The Torah is no longer found on Sinai. It is discovered instead in our hearts.

The Torah offers many faces and speaks with even more voices.

We need not travel far to discover this gift. We need only see its voice and behold its face.


Last evening we hosted a program with StandwithUs, an educational organization deeply involved in combating BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and antisemitism on the college campus.  Shahar Azani, Rabbi David Siegel and Professor Robin Charlow were incredible, outstanding speakers.  They contributed a great deal to our understanding of the issues as well as sharing their personal experiences.  I do however remain biased.  My favorite speaker was none other than Shira Moskowitz! Below is the text of her prepared remarks.  I hope that many find her words equally inspiring.  I hope my young students hear as well her call to action.

It had been a month since resolution AR 3-050 had been brought before our Central Student Government (CSG). The resolution called for the University of Michigan to create a committee that would look into the ethics of the university’s investments. However, this resolution was inextricably tied to the BDS movement because the only companies it singled out were ones that had operations in the West Bank.

I was working the Hillel booth at Springfest, a campus wide fair. We asked students to draw a representation of their core values on quilt to be displayed alongside the winning art from the Hillel art competition based on the same theme. One Hillel student had incorporated Nelson Mandela into her piece which was on display at Springfest. When I was left alone at the booth, students from SAFE (Students Allied for Freedom and Equality), the group that had created the BDS related resolution, approached me. They asked how we could incorporate Nelson Mandela into our art since Israel is an apartheid state. I calmly replied that this was a student’s personal representation and that students in Hillel have a wide rang of views about Israel, social justice, and all other issues. Then the student began to yell at me while her friend videotaped. I said nothing, afraid of where this video would end up and how it could be taken out of context and used against me personally and Hillel. When they walked away I burst into tears. I had never felt so belittled and dehumanized. My privacy had been invaded and I had been attacked.

Unfortunately over the course of that semester, Winter 2014, these were feelings that I and my fellow classmates had become accustomed to. This resolution had divided our campus. You were either for it or against it. There was no room to fall into the gray areas that have shaped the Israel-Palestinian conflict for the past 2,000 years. Many Jewish students felt they could only voice their positive feelings for Israel because they worried that challenging their own beliefs could be misconstrued as weakness or used as ammunition by the other side. As such, it became impossible for students to learn from one another and to share their stories on a campus rife with such hostility and tension.

When students are unable to question and challenge their own beliefs and those of other members of their campus community, the beauty of a college education is lost and the likelihood that something meaningful will occur and that ideas can flow freely becomes less and less.

Although tension had been rising since early December when students from SAFE slipped eviction notices under the doors of dorm rooms to simulate the experience of Palestinians living in the West Bank, it was not until CSG decided to table the resolution that this tension bubbled over.

Students from SAFE hosted sit-ins at the student government offices. CSG representatives received death threats for speaking out against the resolution and some were even walked to class by university police officers. A Jewish friend of mine felt uncomfortable sharing her opinions in class because her professor had expressed his support for the resolution and the BDS movement. Students were called Anti-Semitic slurs for wearing IDF t-shirts, Jewish star necklaces, and other symbols of their pride for Israel and Judaism. Michigan no longer felt like the warm and friendly campus community I had grown to love.

In the end, the resolution was voted down but a statement had been made. Divestment was here to stay at the University of Michigan. This past year, a new but extremely similar resolution was brought in front of CSG. This resolution failed to pass by only a small margin but created much less tension because of the student government’s decision to vote immediately.

While this experience was both eye opening and important for me, what left me frustrated was its lack of constructive outcomes. What had we achieved besides pushing people further apart? Although we are just one college campus, this matters. The students organizing both in favor of and against this resolution are the future leaders of our world. Our college campuses are a microcosm of our society and so it is our responsibility to continue educating, engaging, and debating, three things that are unattainable when polarizing movements infiltrate campuses.

I do not support BDS. I do however support peace, human rights, and a two-state solution. I hope that students on college campuses will not let internationally divisive movements prevent them from having meaningful dialogues that will one day allow them to reshape the society we live in.

And for those who have not yet had a chance to watch the thirty minute film about BDS, "Crossing the Line 2," I urge you again to watch it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Behar-Bechukotai, Nature's Fury and Blossoming Trees

This week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, makes clear that the land of Israel is particularly dear. It is of course the holy land. This is why it alone is granted a sabbatical year. “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard…” (Leviticus 25)

One might therefore think, especially with the success of modern Zionism, that only the land of Israel is holy. But in fact all lands are sacred. The earth, the very ground beneath our feet, must be held dear.

Our blessings do not say, for example, “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, creator of the fruit of Israel,” but instead “the fruit of the earth—borei pri ha-adamah.” The Psalms declare, in a decidedly universal tone, “The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds; the world and all its inhabitants. For God founded it upon the ocean, set it on the farthest streams.” (Psalm 24)

Leviticus however speaks of the land, using the Hebrew word ha-aretz, the land. Yet the intention is clear. It is the earth, the world and all its lands, that is to be held sacred. The Psalmist again declares: “How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.” (Psalm 104)

Recently I have been meditating on this psalm and thinking about the power of nature. Ironically it is often nature’s fury that reminds me of nature’s majesty. There was of course the recent devastating earthquake in Nepal. May its victims soon find comfort. In recent months and years we have witnessed hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, droughts and wild fires. The psalmist continually reminds us. “God looks at the earth and it trembles; God touches the mountains and they smoke.” We are reminded that nature is both majestic and furious.

At times all we can rescue from the earth’s devastating fury is to sing God’s praises. The psalmist again: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; all my life I will chant hymns to my God.” We likewise affirm God when seeing the ocean, hearing thunder, happening upon a rainbow or looking at blossoming trees.

Then again I wonder: how much of nature’s recent fury is within our hands? The drought in California? The tremors in Oklahoma? Are these truly acts of God? We must therefore instill reverence not only before God but before nature. For too long we have believed that we are masters of nature, that we can control nature. Recent events suggest otherwise. We can continue piling more and more sand on Long Island’s beaches but the ocean will eventually win. And God thundered, “Who closed the sea behind its doors…” (Job 38)

I am not of course suggesting that we give up these efforts entirely, that we turn aside from all attempts. We do however require far more humility before the earth’s power. Reverence combined with knowledge would be a much better approach. We would do well to remind ourselves again and again of God’s admonition to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.” We cannot tame nature. We can instead live with reverence and humility.

All lands are indeed holy. It is not just one land. It is not just our backyard but all the earth. Zionism implies that only one land is holy. The Torah was given in Sinai, in the wilderness. It was given there to make clear that it was given to all. It was given there moreover so that no land can claim the Torah as its sole possession. The midbar, the wilderness of Sinai, reminds us that all the earth is sacred.

Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, is of course my favorite land. It is my beloved because so much of Jewish history occurred there. I love nothing more than to hike its wadis and play in its waterfalls. But it is not the only land. The reverence for the land that the sabbatical year suggests is something that we must apply to all lands. We must restore a reverence for the earth and the land.

We can no longer afford to do whatever we want with any land. We can no longer treat the earth with contempt. We must restore a reverence for the earth in our hearts and souls.

Perhaps it begins with a blessing and prayer. The trees are again blossoming! “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe who has withheld nothing from His world and who has created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for mortals to enjoy.”

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Emor, Lag B'Omer and Playlists

Before leaving on a recent long car ride I downloaded a Spotify playlist: “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” The journey began with Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” We pulled into our driveway to “The House of the Rising Sun.” In between we listened and debated the choices. I could have done without Johnny Cash but I appreciated the iconic choice. The B-52’s “Love Shack” restored memories of late evenings dancing and partying. I recalled: Prince really is that good. And it really did begin with Elvis.

The mileage remained the same. The trip was lengthened by three construction delays. 12 hours door to door.

In the end the count was 137 songs to home. The playlist did not of course change the length of the ride. It did however transform the experience.

“And from the day on which you bring the omer (sheaf) of elevation offering—the day after the Sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days…” (Leviticus 23:15-16)

We find ourselves in the midst of the Omer when we count off the days, and weeks, in between Passover and Shavuot. Today is in fact the 33rd day of the Omer: Lag B’Omer. The journey begins with our liberation from Egypt. It concludes with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Each and every day is counted. It is a long trip.

In fact Shavuot is unique among the Jewish holidays. The Torah does not assign a calendar date for this day. It is instead celebrated the day after the counting of the Omer is concluded. It is observed on the fiftieth day. The journey from liberation to revelation is long.

During these tenuous weeks as we wait for the revelation of Torah, and our ancestors anxiously waited for a bountiful harvest, the tradition ascribed semi-mourning practices: no weddings, no music and no haircuts.

Today according to tradition is the yahrtzeit of Shimon bar Yohai, the legendary author of Jewish mysticism’s central text, the Zohar. People celebrate. They light bonfires. It is a day when the restrictions of the Omer are lifted. We sing and dance.

The task of investing meaning in our freedom remains in our hands. The challenge of giving meaning to the journey is found in the songs we sing each and every day, each and every week.

We count. “Today is thirty-three days, which is four weeks and five days of the Omer.”

I find myself wanting get in the car again. I find myself wanting to return to the journey with no destination in mind. I turn to #138. There is music again in the heart, in the counting.

A new song awaits tomorrow.

This post can also be found on Reform Judaism Blog.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"Primary Wonder"

I wandered to the beach for lunch, accompanied by Denise Levertov and her poems.

I discovered:

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtier, wearing
their colored clothes; caps and bells.
                                                          And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng's clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it. (Sands of the Well)

I looked up...


Hallowed One!

Days pass when I forget the mystery...

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Look at Those Jews!

Below are my remarks from our annual fundraiser.

I want to begin by thanking everyone for being here. You did not have to come tonight and support your synagogue. Yet you chose to do so. Thank you. In fact in this day and age belonging to a synagogue, participating in Jewish life can no longer be assumed. I recognize that your choice remains unique. I am grateful for your devotion. I am thankful for your involvement....

To reflect on the meaning of this hour, and the import of our merger, I wish to share a story. Years ago, when Susie and I were still in rabbinical school, we were the unit heads for a newly created six week summer program for 10th graders at Jacobs Camp in Utica Mississippi. Part of the program was taking these Southern Jewish kids on two trips. On one we took them on their first trip to the big city of Atlanta and to this new 24 hour news place called CNN and also for many of them to their first major league baseball game. The Braves lost in extra innings.

On another trip we took them throughout the Deep South. We cleaned up old Jewish cemeteries. We tidied abandoned synagogues. I remember in one town the lone Jew greeted us with the keys to the cemetery gates. He was literally the only Jew remaining in that town. We then filled up another synagogue with rows and rows of young people singing. We read Torah there. We taught Torah. Even on the High Holidays when this synagogue brought in a student rabbi only half of its pews were filled. We brought Torah to a small Southern town.

In another synagogue in Port Gibson, Mississippi there were no more Jews. There once were hundreds. The synagogue building was a beautiful building. The keys were in the care of the gas station owner adjacent to the synagogue. I told him who I was. “I am soon to be rabbi Moskowitz and we are here with sixty high school kids to clean up the synagogue and pray there.” “Here are the keys,” he said. No ID. No skepticism. No doubt. After cleaning up and dusting the floor we sang the Shema in a sanctuary emptied of its furniture. It still pulls at my heart to remember that moment sitting on the floor of a closed synagogue singing the prayers that have sustained our people for generations.

Later when we returned to camp we heard rumblings from the campers that some of our students stole candy from the gas station when we had allowed them to buy snacks. We soon discovered the identities of the three. I put them in the back seat of my Subaru and drove them the 45 minutes back to Port Gibson. No music. No talking on the ride. Only quiet reflection. Judaism demands honesty. It requires ethical scrupulousness. “Back so soon?” the owner asked. These students have something they want to say. They timidly approached the man. They offered their confession. They paid for their stolen candy. Then the response I still recall. “You drove all the way back from Utica to give me a few dollars for candy. You Jews are so honest. Wow. I am so impressed by you Jews.” “Here,” he said, “let me give you something as a thank you present. Here take these cigarette lighters.” I said, “Thank you” and then said, “But you have to understand they cannot accept a gift.” He forced the lighters into my hand. “You have to take something. Thank you, thank you, he said over and over again.”

I have been thinking about that event this past year. Too often the wealth of synagogues is measured by the number of Torah scrolls they have in their Arks or the majesty of their buildings. But if the Torah is only held close and never shared with the world at large, if we do not bring it into our hearts and influence our hands then we have failed. Even our holy scrolls are but tools to bring healing to the world. Even our buildings are intended to help us bring more beauty and meaning to our neighborhoods. The Talmud states that the world is sustained only by the breath of schoolchildren. (Shabbat 119a)  The world not just the Jewish people it states. A confession about stolen candy changed everything—at least for a day—in a small town in Mississippi. That is the breath that breathes life into our souls.

Our two congregations are now one. We are now stronger because we are bound together. We have created friendships. We have ensured our continued success, but mere survival is not good enough for me. All of our hard work is only a starting point. It only matters if it brings meaning to our lives and improvement to our world.

It only matters if because of this place and these people and this congregation the world stands up and says, “Look at the Jewish people.” Let's start here and now. We begin by improving our small corner of the world. We have to start somewhere. Our synagogue, and our survival, must have meaning for the world. As long as we bring healing to others then this undertaking will have import. All of this only matters if people rise up and exclaim, “The world is better because we stood here in this place, because we stood here together.”