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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Naso 5779: Individuality and Authenticity

Reading Parshat Naso, one wonders how the Princes of each tribe felt when they realized they each brought the same gift. Imagine a bridal shower, they lovely young couple gets a lovely crystal vase. Very pretty. The 2nd gift, the same vase, the 3rd, the 4th, the tenth, maybe by now they are not so excited.
In life, we have a lot of repetitive patterns of how we dress, of work responsibility, of chores. When I buy clothes for the kids, I can get blue for Daniel, or pink for the girls; it used to be that my own shirt options were basically white and light blue. It can be hard to find ways to express ourselves.
In Payless last week, Hannah found a pair of shoes that were labelled “You be you.” For $7, you can buy authenticity, you can actually buy being yourself!
Obviously, authenticity is much deeper. You can’t rely on rainbow shoes for authenticity. The fact that they can sell “being you” speaks to our deep, unmet need for self-expression. I can’t pull of wearing rainbow shoes. Am I really able to express my deepest self?
I want to share a Talmudic sugiya that speaks to a Jewish view of authenticity. The sugiya is speaking specifically about prayer, but I invite you to read it as a statement about authenticity in general:

Mishnah Berachot 4:4
Rabbi Eliezer said: He who makes his prayer fixed (keva), his prayer is not supplication.

Gemara: Brachot 29b
What is the meaning of “fixed”?
R. Yaakov bar Idi said in the name of R. Oshaya: Anyone whose prayer is like a burden on him.
And the Rabbis say: Anyone who does not recite [his prayer] in a supplicatory manner.
Rabbah and Rav Yosef both say: [This refers to] anyone who is unable to innovate something [in his prayer].
R. Zeira said: I am able to innovate something in [my prayer], but I am afraid to do so lest I become confused.
Abaya bar Avin and R. Chanina bar Avin both say: Anyone who does not pray during the redness of the sun.

I invite us to think about this as a general statement of authenticity. I see in this text 4 approaches:
1. Attitude: Yes, I do the same thing, but it’s about bringing an emotionally engaged attitude
2. Interpretation: I can conform but have an individualized mindset—what kavannah do I bring to a repetitive task?
3. addition: I have to find a way to express myself—add to what is given me
4. response: I have to live in response to outside—not just me expressing myself, but world making impression on me

Expression through interpretation,
For Yaakov and the rabbis, repetition is a fact of life. The question is, what attitude do we bring to bear? How do we interpret the task?
In our parsha, the chiefs of each tribe bring the same gift. The midrash, however, sees each of them having different symbolism. For Issachar, for example, the gifts represented Torah study, something with which Issachar dedicated themselves to. My favorite interpretation in that midrash is for Dan, the tribe which the nazirite Sampson belonged to: the silver bowl represents the shaved head of the nazirite.
When we talk about kavannah in prayer, we are adding through interpretation: yes, I say “you are holy,” but how can I be holy like God today?
I heard about a janitor in a hospital who loved his job. I would have a hard time: spend 20 minutes cleaning a roomn, then go to another dirty room. What is transformed? The place is the same at the end of the day—there’s not much to show for my work. I would find the repetition depressing. This janitor, hgowever, had a positive attitude: she was helping people heal. How we see our situation can make it deeply meaningful
This approach sometimes doesn’t feel enough. My personal challenge is Wednesday’s song of the day: “Arise, god of retribution & judge the earth”-that’s kind of a scary thought. I think our world needs less retribution, more healing. Also, we read “when will you simpletons listen”-not a phrase I use much. I davven it in Hebrew & ignore the English. That’s not a very authentic solution.
Sometimes interpretation doesn’t get you quite far enough

Expression

According to Ravvah & Yosef, we have to add content. Authentic expression is a deep need. The Talmud says “the seal of god is truth,” something we echo by saying at the end of the Shema “adonay eloheychem emet,” The Lord your God is truth.—if we aren’t speaking the truth, we are not saying anything holy
I once went on pilgrimage over Rosh Hashanah to Rebbe Nahman’s grave, in Uman, near Kiev. There were tens of thousands of Jews, like us, not Hassidim, Israelies, Americans and others, davenning, celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Most Hassidic sects they all dress the same, but this was a beautiful variety of Jews. I attended a class where a leader of the movement told us that they do not encourage 1 form of dress, because then it wouldn’t be lev basar, a heart of flesh (lev basar has the same letters as Breslav, Rebbe Nahman’s birthplace). Here was the annual gathering of an international Hassidic movement saying that in principle, we should all express ourselves differently.
About 9 years ago, Tanya and I were visited by Rabbi Jack Gabriel, who taught us a unique way of doing the blessing before the meal. We hold hands, and say what we are grateful for. When Aliza was 3, she would always say “Thank you for the pool, thank you playground;” she eventually matured to superman. It was real—that’s what she was grateful to God for, so it was holy.

3rd opinion:
The last approach in the sugiya is that authenticity is not just about expressing myself. It’s sbout noticing what’s going on around me, internalizing it, allowing it to impact me, and responding. I could say “it’s 8:30, time to davven.” Or I could say, “wow, look at the sun rise, Blessed are you God who makes lights!” On this approach, we should focus less on self-expression, and more on letting the world make an impression on us. We need to observe the world around us, the people around us, celebrate great things, and respond to the needs we see

You can buy “you be you” rainbow shoes on sale for $7 at payless). But, obviously, you can’t buy real authenticity. Living truly authrntic lives means connecting to our hearts, trusting that bthere is some truth and value to what is there, and also letting our hearts be impacted by the world around us.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Yitro 5779: Shame and Murder

We read this Shabbat about the 10 commandments. We tend to think these are ingrained in the fabric of our society—just look at people trying to plaster them on the sides of courthouses—we think they are the basis for Western morality. But the fact is, many of them are flouted.
The first commandment, which Rambam says is to know there is a God: many people nowadays say they are atheists. The truth is, the God they don’t believe in, is a God I don’t believe in and in fact the overwhelming history of Jewish thought rejects. There is no invisible guy way up high in an invisible castle. Believing in God means believing in goodness, in right, that there is something toward which I personally strive that is greater than myself, and toward which we try to move the world.
Sadly, murder seems to be becoming more common—most recently, the bank shooting up the road in Sebring, where a gunman pointlessly murdered 5 victims on cold blood. I do not believe our society is adequately teaching the sanctity of life.
The Talmud says that there is more than one way to murder somebody. According to the Talmud, public shaming—halbanat panim—is a form of murder. Why is shaming a type of murder? On a literal level, halbanat panim means to make one’s face white—if I shame you and make your face pale, I have shed the blood from your face.
On a more figurative level, we are social animals. My livelihood, my experience in society, depends on what others think of me. Destroying someone’s reputation is destroying the life they built
I have been thinking this week about the video of the student from Covington, who smirked at older native American drumming. A picture of this was put on twitter with a very judgmental caption claiming the student was harassing the native American. The tweet went viral, was even re-tweeted by the congresswoman from Minnesota. This led to threats of expulsion from the school, and even a death threat against student.
It turns out the student was not harassing anybody. The elderly Native American had approached their protest, and was drumming in their faces. They just stood their ground. Should they have smirked and been silly? No, they were disrespectful, but they did not deserve to be dragged over the coals in front of millions of people.
We cannot let ourselves be recruited by the forces of judgment, into believing shameful things about others. The Jewish tradition teaches us to give the benefit of the doubt, and this will take the ammunition away from the forces of judging and embarrassing. Pictures can always be interpreted multiple ways. Giving the benefit of the doubt means to question the caption, and assume the best—they were kids, thought it was funny, and were singing along. Nothing about the video suggested anything more.
We live in a society where people are judged & shamed, and lives & livelihoods are ruined. To not kill, is to not participate in killing, in ruining another’s life, by believing in the positive, giving the benefit of the doubt, and helping build, create life rather than destroy

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Vaera 5779: Hardening our Hearts and Gun Violence

Vaera 5779

In our parsha, we read about the first seven of the ten plagues, and Pharoah's famous reaction, his heart hardening over and over.
What does it mean to have a hard heart? To say “I don't care.” Balls of fire & ice destroying the trees? I don't care. Cattle dying? I don't care. Nobody has anything to drink, to eat? I don't care. I don't care what happens to other people—it doesn't affect me. Pharoah only cares at the tenth plague, when his own firstborn son dies.
All of us have the experience of our hearts hardening, of becoming desensitized to suffering. Shootings are not news, they need to be mass shootings. There are so many shocking things going on in the world—starvation in Yemen, oppression in Saudi Arabia, you name it-that we are just used to it.
When we no longer cry, really we are like Pharoah, our hearts have turned to stone. It happens to all of us, myself included. My chaplaincy supervisor, Joe Leggieri, once said that when you no longer cry, you're not fit to be a chaplain anymore. But the truth is, it's the only way we survive. I had a friend worked in hospice chaplaincy, and who used to joke he was friends with the angel of death; when he had terminal cancer, he made the same comment. When we see suffering on such a regular way, we get used to it, even befriend it.
I have to wonder whether we have become desensitized to gun violence. When shootings fade into the background, and we just shake our heads and accept them as a fact of life, our hearts have become hardened. There was a shooting in the Wellington Mall Christmas eve—how crazy is that? Today, the final draft of the Stoneman Douglas report was released. On the one hand, it is a great sign that people are not letting this issue die, fade into memory like Columbine and Sandy Hook. I am so impressed by the students of MSDHS, who took it to the streets of Tallahassee, Orlando (Disney's Main Street), DC, and even ran for office to keep this issue alive. They refused to let it become a memory, to fade into the history books.
One of the primary recommendations of the report was that teachers should be allowed to carry guns. I am not going to weigh in on the merits of whether teachers should pack; we have an armed security guard here, and thank God for that. The problem is, if a shooter comes around, they will go somewhere else instead. We have not solved the underlying issue, we have come to accept it
We cannot afford to accept as a society the idea that deranged individuals, students who torture animals and classmates, should have access to weapons. We cannot simply accept that deranged individuals will act in hostile ways and not be held accountable. If we do, if we simply accept that the bad guys will have guns, then our hearts have become hardened. Yes, we do need to protect ourselves, to have an armed guard, but we also need to keep questioning how we have become such a violent country.
This week's parsha challenges all of us to maintain a heart of flesh, a heart which feels the pain of others, not to become complacent. Rebbe Nahman says that if we find our heart becoming desensitized, we should bang our head against the wall of our heart, we should tell ourselves to wake up, to remember this is painful, this is not right.
Torah challenges all of us to keep our hearts sensitive to everyone around us, to feel even minor sufferings of the individuals around us, and through this to create a humane society & world.
Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Vayashev 5779 Sermon: Hanukkah and Bullying

In our prayers celebrating Hanukkah, we say that “you delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak.” Hanukkah celebrates the victory of faith over might. Might doesn’t make right; in the long run, we win through faith, not by might.
This is true on a historical level-look at the collapse of Russian communism. It did not happen because of the cold war, because we built larger weapons. It happened because of economic pressures, and because democracy and freedom are right. At times, we do backslide, but ultimately “the arc of history tends toward justice.”
On an interpersonal level, too, we “win” not by vanquishing our foe, not by being more powerful, but by interacting with compassion and openness, and not always getting our way. There are people who always need to get their way, and will use every tool at their disposal to get it. They may force their will, but the other person is not happy, and ultimately it is a pyrrhic victory: they have won the battle but lost the war. By getting their way through force, they have already sown the seeds of their own undoing.
Bullying is very real. I believe the word is so overused now that kids don’t know what it means. Saying something mean online is not cyberbullying. Bullies are people who have power and enjoy using it. When I was a child, I was beaten up on the walk home by a group of children, for no reason other than to gratify their desire to be powerful.
The Greeks were bullies. They had a lot of power: they used elephants to build was essentially a tank, unstoppable by foot soldiers. They had massive phalanxes, which were clouds of lances killing anything in their way.
The Antiochus approach to relationships, which is basically bullying, is to try to use whatever tool I can to get my way. It is a game of mercy, bending the other person’s hand backward painfully until they give in. I can use threats, volume (yelling), insults. There’s no dynamic interchange of ideas, and ultimately, it kills the relationship: if the other person says yes, they only do so out of fear, but their heart wants to go the other way. We all do this at times; sometimes I do it with my own children. It is a challenge to do it differently.
American culture is built on this kind of relationship. As a father of small children, I watch a lot of Disney. Think about Sleeping Beauty: the prince defeats the evil witch by force. So many movies have the following dialogue, or some version:
“Ha ha ha”
“Oh no you don’t”
“I’ll get you next time”
We still teach our children that force solves problems; really, it only causes more problems.
And we see these problems in our synagogue culture. So often, somebody wants something, and uses all sorts of power plays to try to get it. Imagine someone who wants to paint the shul pink: It’s Florida, so pink is appropriate, and it would make us stick out. They may yell at volunteers and staff, insult them, badmouth them, threaten to resign. These kinds of interactions, sadly, happen all the time. They are really forms of bullying. We need to find a different way.
The Jewish approach is very different. At the end of the Amida, we read a prayer that says “may my soul be as dust to all, and may I be silent to those who curse me.” Can I be non-reactive, absorb insults without needing to strike back? We are taught to be flexible, and that it is good to compromise even if we are right, for the sake of peace.
What is a victory of faith?
Avoiding anger: the Talmud says our words should all be calm
Avoiding lashon hara: not badmouthing the person we are speaking with
Giving the benefit of the doubt to the person we are speaking with: they have the best intentions, and have a different experience than myself
Being flexible—The Talmud says we should bend like a reed, and not be stiff like a cedar. It is okay not to get my way 100%, even if I still know im right
Finding solutions cooperatively, which means listening to the person opposite me

The real victory is not winning every conflict. It is not being sure we beat the Greeks, or the Romans, or the neo-Nazis. It is making sure we retain our integrity, that we stand for a different way of being in the world. The victory happens when we model and teach that way of being to the world, increasing the radiance of holy light in the world

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


This weekend, we will read about Moses' warning that at some point in the future, the Jews would be exiled, and later rteturn to our homeland. Driving in a sea of 7 million Floridians who left and returned, I was struck by this experience of rootlessness, of putting our lives on hold; for those of us who were here as well, I sensed that life was on hold-schools are closed for a week, and to quote a text one of you wrote, "nothing to do but cook and catch up on reading."

In some ways it has been like a Shabbat, like a week where instead of "doing" we have been engaged in "being." But it has also been distinctly abnormal, whether because our windows are boarded, our power is out, the library is closed, or we are not in our homes at all.

This weekend, as we read the parsha, I invite us to consider what the Torah is inviting us to feel as our "home," and in what ways even when we return to our houses are we still experiencing "exile.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Passover: Speaking our way out of shame

According to a recent article in the Atlantic, “the secret shame of middle class americans,” many more Americans are cash-stapped than we are accustomed to believe. For example, 47% of Americans can’t round up $400 for an emergency. Most can’t afford the accoutrements of middle class lifestyle: house, cars, health, vacation—which costs an average family $130,000, double the median family income. You’d never think—those who have these things talk about them, we hear about all sorts of family vacations, but those who don’t have don’t talk about it-it’s too shameful.
How many Americans are living in this kind of shame, unable to speak about the pain they experience?
The Haggadah instructs us to start the narrative with shame (gnut), and end with praise (shevah). The Talmud (Pes 116a) reports a debate about what shameful situation is meant. Rav says “shame” refers to idolatry, so he starts the Maggid narrative with terach’s idolatrous family. Shmuel, on the other hand, starts in Egypt with avadim hayyinu, “we were slaves in egypt.” What’s the difference?
Maybe for Rav, shame is when we do something truly bad, so he reaches back to idolatrous days. For Shmuel, on the other hand, shame has nothing to do with whether it is our fault; it is being in an embarrassingly low situation
What’s the shame in that? Why do we feel bad about ourselves when we are down & out? Why do people feel ashamed of not having money, live in silence?
Maybe the shame is really like Rav: fear that others will see it as a moral failure. The OED defines shame as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Jeremy Seabrook, in the Guardian, recently argued that we used to blame poverty on God, but now we blame it on the people.
Or perhaps Shmuel feels that even if it’s not my fault, I still experience it as shameful. I know others will look down on me. Also, I can’t see myself as being needy, weak, etc. None of us wants to see ourselves as poor, vulnerable, down and out. We certainly don’t want others to see us that way. So we suffer in silence.
Just like when we were slaves in egypt, We are shamed into silence. Shame is a contemporary Mitzrayim
What truths do we have that we are not speaking?
What truths are those around us suffering but too ashamed to speak up?

There is a classic midrash on the word “pesah,” that interprets it as peh sah, a mouth telling. On a simple level, the ‘mouth telling’ is reading the Haggadah, telling the story of the Exodus. On a deeper level, however, the mouth is gaining the ability to speak through the process of the exodus. Gaining the ability to speak is itself yetziat mitzrayim, leaving egypt.
Now we get a little technical:
The Zohar distinguishes kol, inner truth that we need to speak, the voice of our heart, from dibbur, the words that actually leave our lips. If the universe is divine speech, self-expression, then kol is the voice of the divine heart, and dibbur is the actual expression of the divine into the physical universe.

Exile is a rupture between kol and dibbur. On an individual level, this means that my inner voice is not articulated into speech. On a divine level, this same rupture happens to God.

The Zohar says that the Jews were constricted like the embryo of a donkey in its mother’s womb. They could not move. Redemption started when they cried out: They cried out, and god heard their cry.

Really embryos do move, so not a great metaphor; maybe donkey embryos move less than human embryos, or maybe the point was that an embryo can’t talk. But the idea was that egypt is a constriction that prevents the dibbur, the articulation of deep truth—they were not not speaking their truth. Only when they cried out, in an unarticulated cry, did the redemption start

The invitation: speak our way out of our personal mitzrayim,
To speak our way out of shame

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Bernie's boycott of AIPAC

I was deeply saddened and disappointed by Bernie Sanders not addressing the AIPAC convention. It was sad to me, for one, to see the only Jewish candidate skipping a major Jewish convention. It was also disappointing to me since, just by virtue of being the only Independent in Congress, Bernie is something of a hero to me. But I was also deeply saddened by what it suggests for the possibility of conversation around Israel, and conversation in general over difficult topics.
For me, this raises some central questions: What’s the best way to deal with someone if I disagree vehemently? What does boycotting accomplish, and what does it destroy?
It is easy to engage in a “conversation” if I have enough things to say that you will agree with; this was the direction Hillary and Trump both went. It’s much harder to have a meaningful conversation if I assume you disagree with me if I walk in assuming there’s a conflict. The belief that there’s a conflict itself creates conflict.

I can think of two important ways to keep converations both real and productive, both of which 9I think) have a basis in Jewish tradition.
1. find common ground
In the classic debate between Shammai and Hillel (over a person sitting in a sukkah, but the table is in their house), Hillel wins the argument, not because of their superior reasoning, but because they were humble. What’s the proof they were humble? They quoted Shammai first. I imagine: they tried to fully understand his position first, and were even happy to explain his reasoning to others. I imagine they were even open to his arguments, even if (as in this case) they ultimately disagreed.
What would this have looked like? If you ever are a candidate for president who feels AIPAC is too easy on Israel, what could you do? You could first meet privately with AIPAC leaders, try to understand their position, try to learn if there are any facts that you may not have considered. try to understand whether there really are substantive differences.
I am not convinced the difference is really so far—maybe a difference in emphasis. Everyone at AIPAC already believes in a “2-state solution”-that’s not really a question. Could Bernie agree that Palestinians need to renounce violence before negotiating boundaries? Probably—he did say so in his speech. Could AIPAC agree that once Palestinians renounce violence, we would talk about a freeze of settlements? Probably.
What often strikes me in these conversations is that there’s much less substantive disagreement than the rhetoric leads us to believe.

2. engage personally,
In the debate between Hillel and Shammai, which was inherited by their followers (Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai), there were differences in their understanding of marriage laws that could have split the community. But nevertheless, their kids married each other. They were still friends. They didn’t
let it result in a breakdown of their relationships.
By boycotting, the conversation is automatically shut down. Once I boycott, I announce, I disagree with you no matter what, and there’s no conversation.
I would like to think that if Bernie had taken his proposed speech to AIPACleaders, and asked what they thought, he might have toned down what he said. I would like to believe he would have backed down from criticizing alleged Israeli bombing of hospitals in Gaza, if he realized they were being used as weapons bases (which he said are legitimate targets). I would like to believe he would not have criticized the alleged economic blockade of Gaza to the same extent, if he was educated about the military nature of the blockade, the challenges of allowing economic borders to remain open while trying to prevent weapons from entering, and the material support Israel does allow through.
When we shut down conversations, we prevent ourselves from growing, from learning our own blindspots. It’s easy to stay locked in my position, to think I’m right and build barriers against the world. It’s harder to engage in a meaningful conversation, where I learn and grow, and where I run the risk of actually changing my opinion.
The Talmud says that Torah scrolls should be written with a reed (rather than something stiffer) because reeds are flexible. May we all be flexible like reeds, growing in wisdom and understanding from deep conversation with each other.