Parshat Vaetchanan – Transitions


I delivered this dvar torah — sermon at the first joint Shir HaMaalotAltshul services on Friday, August 3, 2012.

This week’s Torah portion is about transitions. And transitions couldn’t be a more apropos theme for me as this is my last Shabbes in Brooklyn after seven years living and working in the wonderful Jewish community of New York City.

This parsha is one of the readings where Moses prepares the Israelites to enter the Land of Israel without him. Joshua is the new leader, the desert wandering is over. But denied permission repeatedly to go with them, Moses is downloading in a rush everything he feels they must remember when he’s not with them anymore: where they’ve come, where they’e going, the central tenants of their faith, like the Shma, the V’ahavta, the Ten Commandments and so on. It’s about transitions, leadership and fear of change.

There is an incredible midrash about the reluctance of Moses to turn over leadership. Moses prays so hard his prayers are described as swords that batter down the gates of heaven! He begs the elements and planets to intercede on this behalf! The greatest angels refuse to bring his soul to heaven and the Angel of Death is thrown to the ground while trying. Moses consents to die only when the Almighty offers to personally escort Moses to heaven. But even then, Moses stalls with final speeches to the people of Israel. (He also inaugurates the tradition of long Jewish goodbyes.) The dialogue is actually incredible when God finally says to Moses, in essence, “Yo, Mo, I’m gonna count to three:—  one…two…two and a half…” And then and only then is Moses’ soul taken from his body and Joshua able to lead the people into a new era. It’s a spectacular example of bad leadership, bad transitions.

When we think about leadership qualities today, we’ve made notable progress from back when society thought leaderly qualities were inborn. Now we see that changemakers lead from behind as well as in front. And we see the difference between technical leadership that knows how to fix a given problem and transformative leadership that answers uncertainty in times of tectonic change. Most of the very big problems in our world require leadership that helps us adapt to future uncertainty: we seek a permanent shift in people’s attitudes, prejudices, and behaviors.

Working on those very big problems is exhausting. Like the change demanded of a stiff-necked people glacially slow to change during 40 years in the desert. And of course it’s hard — being called out to change your ways sparks embarrassment, frustration, rejection, self-doubt, and resistance. And it seems there’s a neverending march of things we could do better, do differently: the way we talk, the things we consume, where we love, who our friends are, and more. As soon as one issue is fixed, there is still another to solve. Is there no comfort for someone trying to do good?

Saul Alinsky, the Jewish sage of what we now call community organizing, connects this perpetual struggle to Sisyphus:

If we think of the struggle as a climb up a mountain, then we must visualize a mountain with no top. We see a top, but when we finally reach it, the overcast rises and we find ourselves merely on a bluff. The mountain continues on up. Now we see the “real” top ahead of us, and strive for it, only to find we’ve reached another bluff, the top still above us. […]

Knowing that the mountains have no top, that it is a perpetual quest from plateau to plateau, the question arises, “Why the struggle, the conflict, the heartbreak, the danger, the sacrifice. Why the constant climb?” […] Because life is there ahead of you and either one tests oneself in its challenges or huddles in the valleys in a dreamless day-today existence whose only purpose is the preservation of an illusory security and safety. The latter is what the vast majority of people choose to do, fearing the adventure into the unknown. Paradoxically, they give up the dream of what may lie ahead on the heights of tomorrow for a perpetual nightmare – an endless succession of days fearing the loss of a tenuous security.

This is fear of transitions. Leading is about changing, social change is about changing society. We must push on people’s growing edge. We must instigate productive discomfort. Because, Alinsky says, to inappropriately rush the change so that you’e no longer heard by the people you’e trying to reach is in effect to silence yourself. He points out that silence is most often interpreted as assent to the system. We’e selling a leap of faith: leave behind your way of live, your comforting symbols, the place where you were born, and join me in the wilderness with my invisible god and nothing but a promise of milk and honey…

Last week for Tisha B’Av, we mourned the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. Those events forced a paradigmatic transition for our people – from sacrifice to prayer, from self-governance to exile, from one model of leadership to the next.—  In our own time, we see plenty of change coming with uncertain results. Which President we’e going to have in just three months. Change is scary.

*—  *—  *

But following Tisha B’Av, this week begins Shabbat Nehamu, the Sabbath of Comfort, when Isaiah in this week’s haftarah assures us that after exile comes redemption. The prophet Isaiah invokes a comforting vision of the future (poetic translation mine):

Take comfort, comfort, my people

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem

And tell her that the discomfort is over

The trying period is done

And its difficulty has been double.

And so a voice rings out in the desert!

Make a road leading to Eternity!

Remove the obstacles and make a road

Every valley will be raised

Every mountain will be lowered

Uneven ground will be smoothed

And obscuring terrain will be become open spaces.

To our exiled ancestors, this sounded like a road back home from exile. But it reminds me of the valleys of a dreamless day-to-day existence and the mountain of Alinsky’s Sisyphus. “Every valley will be raised, every mountain will be lowered.” Isaiah is painting a better future: where love and human potential are raised above fears and prejudices; where mountainous obstacles preventing equality because of race, class, gender, religion, disability, and citizenship are paved away; where stumbling blocks are smoothed before the blind, and where humankind lives with itself openly, sustainably, charitably, peacefully.

What productive discomfort did we lead here in New York, in Brooklyn, over the past seven years? Remember before there was gay marriage in New York, before there was a NY domestic workers bill of rights? Remember when lots of us took employment for granted? Remember before there was dancing in these streets as a black man was elected President of the United States? Remember Brooklyn before it was cool?

Remember when synagogues didn’t want independent prayer groups in their halls? Remember a Labor Day before everyone was fundraising for the Hazon Jewish Environmental Bike Ride or their AJWS foreign service trip? Who remembers when nobody had heard of Matisyahu? Or before the plethora of groups working on issues from peace in the Middle East to poverty, and before Altshul and Shir HaMaalot!

These were all dreams of a different type of community. We shouldn’t undersell the struggle of the future, but damn how far we’ve come.

On this Sabbath Nehamu, we assure ourselves that despite difficult transitions and necessary discomfort there is consistency to the universal human drama, that eternal truths do exist, that there is a time for everything under the sun – like rest and healing too – and that the arc of history is long, hard and sweaty but does bend towards justice. This parsha says instead of “Because I took you out of Egypt, you shall love the stranger,” it says “Because I took you out of Egypt, you shall remember the Sabbath.” Rest, be comforted, do not fear change, it can and does lead to betterment.

*—  *—  *

Transitions are such fraught and difficult tasks, especially when we’e trying to be better person, trying to live with someone who is gone, taking relationships to new depths, trying to hand off leadership to successors, embarking towards new frontiers.

What are the transitions you face this season, especially as we look towards the High Holidays? What solace are you seeking this Shabbat? What productive discomfort do you fear but should not? Where have you been asked to step move from technical leadership to transformative leadership? What transformation is asked of you?

On your journeys internal and external, here and abroad, I wish you safety and serenity and comfort so that you can not only climb that mountain, but when you hear the call in the wilderness – “Make a road!” – you can — level that mountain to the ground.

Shabbat shalom, Brooklyn, and goodbye.

Parshat Vayigash: Hiding and Opening


To better understand the Jewish scriptures cycle and my approach to my sermonizing versus my blogging, see my explanation.

In Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27), Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Rather than brotherly reconciliation or trends in assimilation, this week I think more interesting is a mediation on hiding and opening. “Hiding and opening” is a spiritual theme I picked up from my Jesuit Catholic university, where I participated heavily in the interfaith community. It’s shorthand for the masks we wear, the honesty we lack – and not just to each other, but ourselves.

In the Torah text, it is not clear whether Joseph is public about his Israelite origins as viceroy to Pharaoh. I know the rabbis would like him to be and ascribe to him myriad midrashim as being a loyal, Torah-observant Jew in the midst of the heathen Egyptians. But it’s not really clear. Was Joseph open? Or did he hide?

How do we hide ourselves, and when do we choose to open?

There is one midrash about Joseph’s hiding and opening in Sefer HaAggadah that fascinated me. Instead of the teary reunion of brothers uniting, first Joseph and Judah have a near-apocalyptic argument. And in it, Joseph intimidates Judah and shames him by claiming divination gives him information that only a member of the family would know. It’s an extremely colorful and fantastical story:

Joseph accuses his brothers of theft. Judah, outraged, roars so loud he can be heard in Canaan. All the brothers roared and the land of Egypt was imperiled. Joseph became worried that Judah would kill him. Blood oozed out of Judah’s eye! He ground pellets of iron into dust with his teeth!

Instead of Judah’s fawning plea for clemency in the Torah, the midrash rewrites it – Judah outright accuses Joseph, the viceroy of the Pharaoh of all Egypt, of framing the brothers and plotting from the very beginning to ensnare them (which is true).

“From the very beginning, you intended to frame us. From how many countries have people come to Egypt to buy food? Did you ask any of them the kinds of questions you asked us? Nevertheless, we concealed nothing from you.”

Yet Joseph hides everything and wields his knowledge of family matters against them: “The goblet tells me you are the second oldest. Why do you speak for the family?”

“Because they have no responsibility for Benjamin’s life.”

“Why you?” demands Joseph.

“Because I stood surety for Benjamin’s life,” admits Judah.

“Why did you not feel surety for your other brother at the time you sold him to Ishmaelites for twenty peices of silver and inflicted pain upon your aged father by telling him that wild beasts ate him! That brother did you no harm, while this one has sinned. So tell your father, ‘The rope has followed the bucket into the well.’ ”

Judah breaks down into sobs. He cannot return to Jacob without Benjamin. Away from Joseph, he counts the districts of Egypt and figures that he could destroy them all like he destroyed Shechem. His brothers reply, “Judah, Egypt is not Shechem. If you destroy Egypt, you destroy the world.”

And Judah threatens Joseph – “If I draw my sword, I will fill Egypt with corpses!”

Joseph: “If you pull the sword I will wrap it around your neck!”

Judah: “If I open my mouth, I will swallow you!”

Joseph: “If you dare open your mouth, I will plug it with a rock.”

Judah: “What are we to tell our father?”

Joseph: “I told you: ‘the rope has followed the bucket.’ ”

Judah: “You pass a judgement based on lies.”

Joseph: “Lies to the liars—no judgement is as full of lies as the sale of your brother.”

Judah: “The fire that burned Shechem is rekindled in me.”

Joseph: “It is rather the fire you unjustly intended for Tamar your daughter-in-law, and I will quench it.”

Judah: “Now I will go out and dye all the districts of Egypt with blood!”

Joseph: “You have always been dyers, for you dyed the coat of your brother with blood!”

Joseph alternately baits Judah, shames Judah, fears Judah, and drives the confrontation towards explosion. At the climax of the anger is when Joseph reveals his identity.

“Your brother lives,” he says, “I bought him and I will show him to you. He is me!” The midrash says the brother’s souls left them and only through a miracle by God were there souls put back in. In their fury at being tricked by Joseph, the brothers leapt on Joseph to kill him and an angel from heaven intervened and threw them to the four corners of the room. Judah then roared so loud that all the women in Egypt miscarried and Pharaoh fell off his throne! Only then did Joseph say, “Come near to me,” and his brothers came near and together they all wept.

Wow. What a story.

Joseph was hiding himself, and by hiding, gave himself power over his brothers. By revealing himself, he gave himself power over his brothers. Identity is a power we have; we conceal and reveal it when it is convenient.

It is not clear that Joseph ever spoke about his origins or travails to anyone by the few in Egypt. This climactic moment was not just Joseph hiding from his brothers or exerting power over them for revenge, but Joseph hiding from himself. The anger, the loss, the confusion, the betrayal – all represented before him by his brothers, a confrontation maybe he thought would never happen. Would he, at the end, have the strength to reveal himself? The situation escalated, making it more dire to reveal the truth in each passing moment – but yet Joseph pressed on. And in a moment almost entertaining for its style of male rapprochement, they each try to kill each other, and then fall on each other crying.

How do you hide yourself? How do you reveal yourself? From what are you hiding? And are you making it harder on yourself to reveal what you know to be true?

We hide to avoid conflict and controversy. We can also reveal to avoid conflict and controversy. We hide that we love, but admit only that we feel pain, and vice versa. We hide to heal as much as we open to heal. We hide that we are gay, that we are Jewish, that we’e different, that we disagree or agree, that we’e alone. The myriad masks of everyday fear and hope are like layers of colored lenses that filter others’ impressions of us. Ultimately we hide and reveal that we’e not who you think we are.

On this last Shabbat before a new decade, I wish you a New Year’s of happiness and self-knowledge, and may the new week, new year, new decade bring you…truth.

Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Chayei Sarah: Reconsecrating Hebron means giving it up


(To better understand the Jewish scriptures cycle and my approach to my sermonizing versus my blogging, see my explanation. Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)

Hevron, the holy city. The city full of holiness and holes, birthrights and burials. The coins dropped by Abraham into the palms of the Hittites in this parsha echo down the halls of history; and we audit what he purchased for us. We inherit so much.

Hevron is one of the four Jewish holy cities, where legend has it Jews have lived continuously for our entire history. Adam and Eve are said to be buried there. All of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, except Rachel, are buried there. We don’t know what its name means. It could mean “four” after the four pairs of ancestors, or the fourth holy city, or the four other names its held. It could mean “unity” or “fellowship” for the partnership between Abraham and the Hittites. Or because estranged brothers of two generations – Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau – put aside their years of enmity in order to bury their fathers there. It is the reward that Caleb the spy requests for his truthful reporting. Under Joshua, Hevron is designated as one of six cities of refuge where those accused of murder could flee for asylum. It was the city assigned to the Cohanim and Aaron’s priestly descendants. It was King David’s first capital city and his parents are said to be buried there. In the Middle Ages, beautiful poems were composed to “sleepers of Hevron,” all those buried there, awaiting the day of redemption when they would awake, rise and join us in the Messianic Day. The Arabs call it Al-Halil – “the friend of God” – and we share with them the mosque built atop the cave, the Machpela.

Refuge, city for priests, meeting ground of reconciliation, family ties, reward for truthfulness, seat of authority. Not so bad for four hundred silver shekels.

It is because Hevron is so holy place that we are so disappointed in it. A legacy as rich as this in shining precepts is despoiled by its recent history and present-day morass.

How should one behave in a holy place?

In holy places, we speak quietly, respectfully, in hushed voices, awed and appreciative. We listen for the whisper of the still, small voice against stones ancient and strong. And we hear It.

On August 24, 1929, Hevron was anything but quiet as nationalist tensions erupted in Hevron’s most infamous massacre. In the words of Aharon Rueven Bemzweig, who survived that night, “Right after 8 in the morning, we heard screams. Arabs had begun breaking into Jewish homes. The screams pierced the heart of the heavens. They were going from door to door, slaughtering everyone inside…The screams and moans were terrible. People were crying Help! Help! …As we lay on the floor of the cellar, we heard the screams as Arabs were slaughtering Jews. It was unbearable.” 67 were killed, 60 wounded.

On February 28, 1994, who could have heard the still, small voice in the cave of the Patriarchs as the mosque filled with the sound of automatic gunfire, which Dr. Baruch Goldstein unleashed on Muslim worshippers. As the New York Times reported of survivor Katem Kafisha, “When I saw Goldstein, he was running toward the hall where everyone was saying prayers. I was taking off my shoes by the door. He could have shot any one of us who was outside, but it was clear he only wanted to open fire on the worshippers so he could hit as many people as possible. He didn’t say a word.” The IDF reported that Goldstein emptied 111 rounds from 3 —½ clips in two minutes, killing between 39 and 52 and wounding 125.

In holy places, pilgrims bustle and bring in bushels their hopes, reverence, faith, and search for wonder. From all over the world a holy place collects more holiness, layers of it like the sedimentary record.

There are few pilgrims in Hevron today. A trickle. Within its center, a diehard cluster of 300 Israeli settlers sit protected by 1,500 Israeli soldiers. Some 20% of it is under near-constant curfew and military patrol, shops are shuttered and sniper lookouts dot the rooftops. It is a ghost town, closed off and shut down. The most recent layers here are laid by the mountain wind swirling desert dust in empty marketplaces.

In holy places, witnesses are inspired to holiness themselves – a welling up within, an electrifying of expectation, a surge of hope, the feeling that God really stands just barely concealed beyond the curtain of reality. A battery sizzling with Divine renewal.

We fear in Hevron that God has abandoned earth, thrown up His hands and found more fertile soil for cultivation. Walking the empty streets or meeting wary-eyed settler devotees or wary-eyed Palestinian residents, you feel not a welling up within but weight, hallowed out, lonely.

Hevron is deep in the West Bank, recognized in every negotiation iteration as a city that will not be kept by Israel. Whether Israeli citizens – or Jews at all – will be able to visit this fourth of our holiest cities is not certain. But it must happen or there will be no democratic Jewish state at all.

How then – after all of this history – can we give up this city? Charged with meaning and power and symbolism, how can we hand over this tiny plot of land and risk never seeing it again? (It’s not so much we hand over really, barely the side of this shul! [Congregation Beth Elohim])

Because if Hevron is a “holy city,” it was once a holier city. Exactly because today it is so hard to feel the layers of holiness buried beneath still-fresh layers of pain, we must act as if it still inspired us to the strength, the charity, the hope and generosity, the reverence and the spirit of rapprochement. We must summon those feelings from our texts and our experience of sacred spaces elsewhere if we are to reconsecrate this city as holy.

Giving away what is valuable to our people is not easy. But we want Hevron to be holy once again. Of all the acts of repairing the world that are possible to us, this act of dusting off the soot and revealing the shine beneath – surely there are fewer more sacred acts! If all of Jewish law is to bring out the holy sparks in every movement and act, how great this mitzvah is! We relinquish because we revitalize. Solomon built sacred space; the Maccabees rededicated sacred space; now it is our turn.

We must see making peace, and its hard, hard compromises, as part of the most powerful act of creating holiness our people has ever endeavored. We will infuse our kavannah, we will invite God back amongst us, we will inspire pilgrims. And when it is done we will inhale the silent, awed, hushed aura of a city of holiness, of refuge, of priestly acts, of bearing truth, of reconciliation. Hevron has so much possibility.

I wish you a Shabbat shalom and hope soon, despite all the politics, to consider the hope still latent in dire situations. We have only up to go from here. If you’e interested in investing a little time in this issue, then some of us are working very very hard, very very seriously on that future day in Hevron.


Judging How We Judge: Parshat Ki Tetsei


Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19, Isaiah 54:1-10
(An introduction to my divrei torah.)

It is now the Hebrew month of Elul, when we shift focus to beginning a new year and atoning. We read this week lists and lists of rules. Ki Tetsei contains some of the most sweeping calls for justice and fairness in the whole Torah:

…you shall not turn in a runaway slave to their master (Deut. 23:16)…
…you may not make a spectacle of capital punishment (21:22)…
…you must either return lost property to its owner, or hold it in trust until reclaimed, but “you may not remain indifferent” (21:1-3)…
…you shall maintain honest weights (which I think is saying something about one’s gym membership) (25:13)…
…you must leave gleanings for the poor in your harvest…
…you shall not abuse a needy or destitute laborer (24:14)…

But it also stipulates some of the most troubling and disconcerting of rules:

…you can capture wives as spoils of war, as long as you don’t sell them as slaves later (which really pushes the definition of slavery!) (21:10)…
…you may execute a rebellion son for eating a fist-sized peice of meat (21:10)…
…you may not genderbend (wear the other sex’s clothing) (22:5)…
…you must kill your daughters who are not virgins (22:13-29)…
…you may not enter combat as a soldier if you’ve had a wet dream (23:10)…
…you may charge Gentiles interest, but not Jews (23:20)…
…and whatever you do, don’t you ever, EVER forget what Amalek did to us (does anybody remember this? anybody?) (25:17)…

There are 79 commandments given in this section, dealing with judgments and rules and prohibitions and punishments. Thank heavens then that the haftarah is about forgiveness and being taken back by God:

For a while I forsook you
But with vast love I will bring you back

For the mountains may move
And the hills may shake
But My loyalty shall never move
Nor My friendship shake

Judgment and mercy are supposedly balanced in our tradition, and as we approach the High Holy Days we are thankful for the latter. In Ki Tetsei, Deuteronomy is about judgment, Isaiah about forgiveness. We have rules, yes. But we are given the rules, not us to the rules, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

This is the time of reconsideration. It’s time not only to reconsider our actions, but also to put the Torah up for reconsideration. Our individuals Torahs. As liberal theologians, we know that our religion is whatever we make of it. Judaism is replete with enough laws and injunctions that we can make our religion say whatever we want it to say. And we can make our rules rule us.

Sefer HaAggadah, essentially the coda of Jewish law with the law removed to compile just the parables and storytelling, offered me two startling examples from this parsha:

Early on, the Temple priests used to hold a race up the ramp of the altar for the honor of performing the divine sacrifice. But one time a priest lost the race and with the sacrificial knife stabbed the winner dead, but without bloodying the blade. The priestly class exclaimed to the horror of bystanders, “Thanks to God, the blade is still clean!” The rules ruled, cruelly.

Another teaching regards the “wayward son” who can be stoned to death for disrespecting his parents. Rabbi Simeon spends paragraphs explaining this as simply a metaphor for gluttony, it’s not what it sounds like, nobody should ever stone their own son! But at the very end, Rabbi Jonathan adds a single sentence: “Yes, but I saw one once, and sat by his grave.”

We chose our stringencies and leniencies. Not only how I have performed up to my principles, but which principles I chose.

Have I celebrated the clean blade before a dead body on the steps of the Temple? Or have I dismissed glibly entire tractates of our tradition as dated superstition? Have I, as I personally fear, given myself undue mercy without putting my faith outside my comfort zone?

It’s time to judge how we judge ourselves. And others. Read this parsha, see the breadth of concerns our tradition could ask of us, consider what you have built. I pray you find a new balance, in a new context, for a new reconsideration. May your Elul begin meaningfully.

Shabbat shalom.