Tuesday, October 13, 2015

My Kol Nidrei sermon on kindness

This year for Yom Kippur I preached on the importance of being kind as something that is good for us, good for our community, and good for the world.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Shoftim - All Is Not Fair in Love and War

Reading or hearing about wars taking place around the world is often very uncomfortable.  War is a subject that we don’t like to talk about. It makes us feel uncomfortable for the death and destruction that usually accompany it. And often these feelings are exacerbated as the perpetrators on both sides seem to conduct themselves in such a way as though there were no laws governing the way one wages war. 

In our book of Deuteronomy (Devarim) which we are currently reading, there are lots of references to the wars that we will have to wage as the Israelites when we conquer the Promised Land. And it can be uncomfortable to read about what we’re going to have to do. But then, in the midst of this week’s Torah portion we read “when in your war against the city, you have to besiege it along time in order to capture it. You must not destroy its trees, wielding the acts against them. You may eat off them, but you must not cut them down.

In the course of a war, thinking about the environment and the way that we treat it, might seem like the last thing that people are going to consider. And yet the Torah comes in here with the reminder that we must always be mindful of our environment and those things around us. And so, recognizing that these trees provide food, we cannot destroy them. It even says “only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed. You can cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.”

In this way, the Torah is not stopping us from waging war, recognizing that unfortunately war appears to be a necessary evil, but it is trying to set limits and guidelines for the way we wage our wars. And if we are to show this kind of respect for the trees around us when waging war, surely we must show even more respect to the people living within those cities and the people who eat from those fruit trees.

I like to think that in this moment the Torah is reminding us to be considerate of the environment and be considerate of those inhabiting that environment when you’re waging war – so as to try and do it in the most moral way possible. War is a dirty business, but maybe with these kind of injunctions and instructions, we can make it that little bit more humane and that little bit more ethical. I’m still uncomfortable about all the war and destruction described in this book of Torah, but these moments give me hope of something better – something that I can hold on to – offering me a moral lesson and instruction.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Re'eh - To Be Free

While watching Jon Stewart's final appearance as the host of The Daily Show, as well as thinking about the influence he has clearly had on American society and politics over 16 years, I was struck by the fact that the show itself is a statement and a sign of the kind of freedom that we have in this country. In many parts of the world it would not be possible to have a show, such as The Daily Show, skewering politicians and making fun of those in power. It would be shut down immediately and the presenters and those involved with it would be severely punished. But in our society, The Daily Show is one of those signs of our freedom and the freedom of speech that we have.

This week’s Torah portion is very concerned with the freedom that the Israelites have acquired for themselves. It begins with the idea that they have a choice between choosing blessing or curse. And then it continues by talking about what happens when an Israelite becomes a servant or a slave, and how that should be handled. 

Towards the very end of the Torah portion, it reminds us of the three foot festivals – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot – when the Israelites would traditionally go to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate. When looking at these festivals, as always, Shavuot appears without a date. Instead we are told you shall count off 7 weeks, start to count the 7 weeks when the cycle is first put to the standing grain. And then we’re told, you shall observe the feast of weeks for Adonai your God, offering your free will contribution according to Adonai your God and the way that God has blessed us. We are told that we should rejoice with every member of our society and then we are told, bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt. 

It’s striking that for Shavuot we are told to remember our slavery in Egypt especially as for Pesach, the festival in which we celebrate our Exodus, there is no mention of our remembering our slavery. In reminding us that we were slaves in connection to Shavuot, it might be a sign that the ability to worship God is a symbol of our freedom. It might be that the receipt of Torah is also a symbol of our freedom. 

But I wonder if it’s more about the fact that Shavuot is the festival that we come to by counting. It’s the festival where the date is not specified in the Torah and instead we have the obligation to reach to that point. We have the ability to count time and through the counting of time we reach the festival of Shavuot.

For slaves, time is irrelevant. Everyday blends into the next one and the counting of time takes on a meaningless quality. But for free people, everyday matters – everyday counts, because we have the freedom to use it in the way that we choose. In this way Shavuot, the festival that comes with the culmination of a count of 7 weeks is really the festival where we understand and can appreciate the fact that we are free. 

For our Israelite community in the wilderness, freedom came from the ability to count time. For us in American society, freedom might come from our ability to make fun of our politicians. Wherever it comes from, the important thing is that we always cherish the freedoms that we have and make sure to protect them.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Ekev - Communal Love

Margaret Meade is famous for saying “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Whenever I hear this quote, I always think about the campaign to free the Refuseniks from the Soviet Union. When Natan Sheransky emerged to freedom, he said “It was because of the housewives and the students that I was free. It was because of the group of people coming together in solidarity and support of one another and their values, that he was released.”

In the Book of Deuteronomy  that we are currently reading, frequently we are given an instruction or commandment that we should LOVE. Most famously for us, we are told “Veahvta et Adonai Elohecha” – you should love Adonai, your God. These words of Torah eventually find their way into our liturgy as part of the Sh’ma. In that moment, the Commandment to love God is an individual commandment. We are told you shall love God, in the singular.

In this week’s Torah portion of Ekev, which has several references to love, in terms of again loving God – it also then talks to us about our obligation to love the stranger. We read that God loves the stranger, but then we read the instruction “Veahvtem et hager kigerim haitem b’eretz mitzrahim” – and you shall love the stranger because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.

When we translate this passage, we lose an important element that is there in Hebrew. When we’re told to love God, we’re told “Veahvta et Adonai.” Here, we’re told “Veahvtem et hager." This is a communal command, a communal instruction that we collectively should love the stranger – not simply individually.

We might wonder why the command to love God is singular while the command to love the stranger is in the plural. I think it’s because loving the stranger requires us to change the way that society functions, because all too often the stranger is vilified and demonized for being something other. Only when we come together as a community, when we love the stranger communally, can we impact society and make the kind of difference that’s necessary for the stranger to be fully accepted and become a part of society.

We need to come together in the love of the stranger because individually we cannot change things. It’s only when we come together as a community, the communal love, that the stranger can truly be welcomed and accepted.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Vaetchanan - Compassionate Punishment

In the movie Con Air - about a group of prisoners being transported on an airplane – at one point John Cusack’s character quotes Theodore Dostoevsky and says “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.” In this way he acknowledges the fact that while prisoners need to be punished, there’s also a need for there to be compassion in the way that they’re punished and the way that their punishment is handled.

This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses pleading with God about his punishments. Several weeks ago in our Torah, we read about how Moses struck the Rocks of Meribah, and as a result God decreed “You will not bring this congregation to the Land because you didn’t sanctify God in the eyes of the people of Israel. Here we see that Moses has yet to make his peace with the punishment that God has chosen and he says “Let me I pray cross over and see the Good Land on the other side of the Jordan – that good hill country and the Lebanon.” But as he continues: “Adonai was wrathful with me on your account and wouldn’t listen to me.” And God said “Enough, never speak to me on this matter again.” 

But then, in responding to Moses’s plea, we see how God has compassion for Moses. God says “Go up to the Summit of Pisgah and gaze about to the West and North, South and East. Look at it well. You shall not go across the Jordan.” 

At first glance, this appears to be God reinforcing the punishment – that Moses will not bring the congregation into the land, but when we return to Moses’s words, Moses asks “I pray – let me cross over AND see the good land.” Crossing over appears to be off the table because God’s punishment is very clear – that Moses will not bring the congregation into the Land. But the opportunity to see the Good Land on the other side of the Jordan – THAT God can accept. And in this way when God says to Moses “You can go up to Pisgah and see the land.” God is at least able to respond to one of Moses’s requests.

In this way, we see God’s compassion for Moses and God’s compassion in the context of punishing Moses.  For God’s reasons, whether we agree with them or not, Moses deserves to be punished and will not enter the Promised Land. But God still finds a way to respond to Moses’s request so that there can be compassion – so that there can be an opportunity for Moses to at least see the Promised Land on the other side of the Jordan. God demonstrates for us that even when punishing someone, there is the opportunity and the possibility to be compassionate in the way that that punishment is being handled. Moses never fulfills the first part of his request, but God listens to him, and at least he gets to see the Good Land, the Promised Land.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Devarim - Carried by God

One of the phrases that our daughter Gabby likes to say is “Pick me up.” She can of course walk and often we’ll push her in the stroller, but she likes to be picked up and carried when we’re going from place to place. Right now as I’m recording this podcast, we’re at URJ’s Green Family Camp, in Bruceville, TX and with the heat outside, Gabby has said “Pick me up” more often than normal.

We as parents have a responsibility to carry our children until they are able to walk, but it’s also interesting to know that God appears to carry us as well. In this week’s Torah portion of Devarim, as Moses begins his farewell address to the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan, we get a little bit of a recap of our peoples journey – how we left Mount Sinai, how Moses set up judges over all the people and then how we have the incident of the spies going out to the Land and bringing back their report.

When Moses retells this story, he says that it was him who said to the people “Have no dread or fear of them. None other than Adonai your God, who goes before you, will fight for you – just as God did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes – and in the wilderness where you saw how Adonai your God carried you, as a man carries his son – all the way that you traveled until you came to this place.” In these 2 images, we see the 2 sides of God. On the one hand, God is the warrior fighting for us – the one who brought us out of slavery in Egypt, who brought plagues and miracles so we could go free – but alongside this, we have the picture of God as a loving parent, carrying us just as a parent carries their child – all the way through the wilderness, for past 40 years.

As we read this Torah portion, we therefore gain an insight into the dual relationship we have with God. There is the God of Force and the God of Might, but there is also the God of Parental Love. \

As we approach our high holy day season, when we refer to God as Avinu Malkanu -  our Parent and our Ruler, we see in that prayer, the 2 sides of God. Often we focus too much on the powerful God, bringing miracles, plagues, and smiting down those who oppose God. It’s also important to remember the loving God, the parental God – the one who carried us for 40 years throughout our time in the wilderness and who in many ways, continues to carry us today. 

We have this dual relationship with God. Sometimes we want God to go before us and sometimes we simply need God to be there to pick us up, to carry us, and to love us.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Matot-Masei - Responsibility for others

In one of my favorite scenes in the original Star Wars movie, and I’m sorry if I’m spoiling it for anyone, Han Solo returns to save Luke Skywalker as they’re attacking the Death Star.  Earlier in the film, Han had left, taking the money he’d received and seemingly not caring or feeling any responsibility to help Luke or the rest of the rebels as they battled against the Evil Empire.  But we see that Han really is the hero we hoped he would be as he comes back recognizing that he is responsible for others and that there is more to life than just money. 

In this week’s Torah portion we see potentially a similar occurrence as the Reubenites and the Gaddites come to the land of Jazer and Gilead and realize that this would be a perfect region for them to raise their cattle. 

They then go to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the chieftains of the community and ask, “Can we stay on this side of the Jordan, in this land, and have this as our holding, as our inheritance.”  And, Moses' response is “are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” 

The response of the Reubenites and Gaddites is unequivocal, they respond and say “we will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children and then we will hasten as shock troops in the van of the Israelites until we’ve established them in their home.  While our children stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land.  We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion, but we will not have a share with them in the territory beyond the Jordan, for we have received our share on the east side of the Jordan.”

In this moment, those two tribes pledged themselves to be responsible for the other tribes as they cross over the Jordan and conquer the Promised Land.  What’s striking is that Moses says to them “are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?”   And, while originally, the tribal leaders were brothers when it was the sons of Jacob; Reuben, Shimon, Levy, Judah and so on.  Many many generations have passed since then.  And so, at best now, we’re talking about very distant cousins and yet, Moses still uses the term “brothers” and the response is “we are responsible for our brothers”. 

When we consider that we are all descended from Adam and Eve and then again from Noah, we might recognize that in many ways, we are brothers with all of humanity, and, as such, this episode serves as an indication that we are responsible for everyone.  Not just our immediate family, but even if they were brothers or sisters hundreds of thousands of years ago, as we are all descended from Adam and Eve and Noah, we are all brothers and sisters with all of humanity.