Did you ask a good question?

Throughout my career as a rabbi, I’ve loved sharing the inadvertent wisdom of Isaac Rabi’s mother, and encouraging students to “ask a good question.” How nice to get to offer a d’var torah at URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy during the week when our value was sakranut – “curiosity!” This, more or less, is what I said…

This afternoon at B’nai Mitzvah tutoring, a few kids were chanting ashrei, one of my favorite psalms. It includes a verse which goes like this: gadol adonai umehulal m’od, v’lig’dulato ein cheker. Which translates as, “God is huge, and so worthy of praise; God’s vastness cannot be measured.”

On that verse, a great commentator named David Kimchi once wrote, “Since God’s vastness is beyond measurement, and God cannot be fully understood, all we can do is acknowledge the vastness and praise it, each of us as best we can.”

Now, Kimchi was a great Torah commentator with a better head for Hebrew than almost anyone….but his approach to God’s vastness is out of place in a synagogue full of scientists. Beyond measurement, you say? Challenge accepted!

Our sakranut, our curiosity, doesn’t allow us to throw up our hands and say “Oh well, it’s really, really big, and that’s as specific as we can get.” We want to measure it with precision, and then take that measurement again, and again, to confirm our findings. Our curiosity compels us to ask, to seek, to know.

It was just that sort of curiosity that compelled Dr. Isidore Isaac Rabi. Dr. Rabi, a physicist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944. His work laid the foundation for the inventions of the atomic clock, the laser, and MRI machines, among other things. And Dr. Rabi was once asked why he became a scientist. This is what he said:

”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me become a scientist!’

We’ve got a beautiful Shabbat ahead of us, and then, for many of us, a trip home. All of us – Greg and Barak, your teachers, your counselors, your Rabbis and Cantor, everyone who invests their time and energy in Sci-Tech – wants you to go home having learned much. But even more than that, we want you to go home curious. We want you to ask good questions.

When Pride and Yom Kippur Collide

The unfortunate coincidence of NC Pride and Yom Kippur has elicited many reactions. Here’s mine…

I know you’ve received a good deal of communication already regarding the scheduling conflict that will keep the Jewish community from taking part in NC Pride this year. I’m writing to share my own sense of disappointment, and that of many within Judea Reform Congregation, at being excluded due to this conflict. As a religious community with longstanding and deeply-held commitments to LGBT justice, taking part in the parade is a chance to take the values we preach and teach out into the world.

For many years my synagogue did not take part in the parade due to the conflict with our sabbath. In 2015, we changed the policy that kept us from taking part in social justice events on Saturdays. We’ve participated as a synagogue for the past two years, and were looking forward to doing so again this year. Months ago we blocked off September 23 on our planning calendars (we’d assumed it was going to be held on the fourth Saturday, and failed to consider that it might be scheduled for the last), so that nothing we planned would conflict with Pride. You can imagine our surprise our surprise and disappointment when the date was published on the ncpride.org website.

As you know, and have acknowledged, this scheduling conflict is painful to Queer Jews and their allies. As an often-marginalized minority community in the South, most Jews are used to schedules being made by the dominant culture with scant concern for our participation. It’s doubly painful that the latest oversight came from the LGBT community, also so frequently marginalized. Adding to the pain is the particular moment in which this oversight occurred, a time of rising bias against the LGBT community and the Jewish community alike. Recent events have led to even more tension between the two communities (the Chicago Dyke March being the most obvious example).

I hasten to add that I assume no ill-will on your part, or anyone’s at NC Pride; I only mention all of this to provide some context for what I know has been an avalanche of reaction, much of it very emotional.

From all that I’ve heard, there is no way for a change to be made to this year’s schedule. I am hoping against hope for a miracle. Failing that, I hope that you’ll make a note to avoid September 30, 2028 (Yom Kippur), and September 30, 2030 (Rosh Hashanah), so that we can all stand together, in unity and with pride.

Sincerely,
Rabbi Larry Bach

Judea Reform Congregation Annual Meeting, Rabbi’s Report

In last year’s report, I devoted a fair amount of space to a catalog of the changes our synagogue had experienced in the previous few years, and concluded with the hope we would all settle in for a while. I am pleased that my hope has largely come to pass, and I begin my report with a word of gratitude for our entire professional staff. Jennifer, Ray, Rabbi Brian, Aviv, Lois, Lisa, Loni, Nikki, Heidi, Anthony and Gene all serve this community with devotion. We are better for their presence and their gifts. Continue reading

Where Empathy Ends, Justice Begins

Sermon for Parashat Kedoshim, Judea Reform Congregation.

I’ve been saying for several weeks now how much I appreciate the fact that the book of Leviticus extends the realm of religion to include the earthier parts of life. When we say “Judaism isn’t a religion, it’s a way of life,” the parshiot we’ve just concluded are, in part, what we have in mind. Torah lays claim to the way we eat, the way we heal, the way we encounter birth and death, and the way we interact with people whom we’ve harmed. It is a torat chayim, a path for life. All of it. Continue reading

Dislocation. Alienation. Subjugation. Humiliation. These are not our way…they are Pharaoh’s.

Judea Reform Congregation D’var Torah, Parashat Va’era, 5777/January 27, 2017 (the day an executive order slammed the door on refugees). 

I had a tremendous privilege this morning, to represent our Jewish tradition at a rally in downtown Durham focused on our country’s policies with respect to immigrants and refugees. Following nearly a dozen people who have sought and found refuge in America through various avenues, and who now live in fear about their own status or that of family members, I spoke about the ways in which both Torah’s teaching and my own people’s history compel me to stand up for the immigrant and the refugee. Though time constraints didn’t allow me to  teach from the parasha this morning, there is a lesson embedded within it that speaks directly to this moment.

It is based on Exodus 6:6-8, in which God tells Moses to

“[s]ay, therefore, to the Israelite people: ‘I am the Eternal One. I will bring you out from the labors of the Egyptians and free you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Eternal One, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal One.'”

These verses are sometimes referred to as the “blueprint for deliverance.” God promises Moses that the Israelites would make their way from Egyptian servitude and degradation to freedom and exaltation, and that they would ultimately come home again. Four verbs appearing in quick succession in the first verse lay out the program, and have gained an additional significance in Jewish practice as the source of our four cups at the Pesach Seder. vehotzeiti. vehitzalti. vega’alti. velakachti. “I will bring you out.” “I will free you.” “I will redeem you.” “I will take you.”

A brilliant commentary of the Kli Yakar paints an incredibly rich picture of this program, and of what it might have felt like to live it as an Israelite in those days. He develops the lesson by hearkening back to God’s words to Abraham (Gen 15:13), “Know well your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years,” and recognizing similarities between that verse and the one in Exodus. Listen to the words spoken to Abraham again: “Strangers.” “Not theirs.” “Enslaved.” “Oppressed.”

As he sees it, first comes dislocation, and the accompanying alienation. Abraham’s descendants are geographically removed from their home in Eretz Yisrael, and a byproduct of that move is a feeling of distance from God’s presence, a richuk hashekhinah. Dislocated and alienated, they are ripe for subjugation, no longer existing economically free. Finally, having lost their actual home, their sense of home, and their capacity to earn a living, it is but a short step to the oppression and humiliation that often lands on society’s have-nots.

So God lays it out for Abraham way back at the beginning, and then tells Moses just how the undoing of this state of affairs will happen: in reverse. “I will bring you out from beneath the oppressive burden…” First, stop the humiliation, the beatings and the persecution. “Next, I will save you from slavery to them…” Economic security comes next. “I will redeem you with an outstretched hand…” That is to say, I will lift you out of the geographical dislocation, bringing you home. Finally, “I will take you to me…” Using language from the realm of marriage, God promises that the geographical homecoming will be accompanied by the end of that spiritual alienation, a People and their God joined together again.

This morning I stood side-by-side with people who have left everything in order to stay alive amidst war, privation, and persecution. They look to this land, to our community, for a sense of home, a sense of belonging, a chance to make a living, and, it should go without saying, the opportunity to live free of the oppression and persecution that led them here in the first place. America has frequently lived up to its self-image as a place of refuge and freedom. Frequently enough that a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo can say to a crowd in downtown Durham on a chilly morning, with no irony or pessimism, “I wanted to come here because we know America is the place where it doesn’t matter what color you are.”

But we know that we have frequently missed the mark. We Jews know it all too well, having had the doors – American doors –  closed in our face as Nazism engulfed Europe. Now is a moment of reckoning. Whose side are we on? God’s, or Pharaoh’s?

I am not being hyperbolic, nor am I being overly simplistic. These are the facts. The executive order putting a pause of one hundred twenty days on refugee resettlement will destroy families, livelihoods, and lives. As we sit in our sanctuary, refugees have sold everything they own and given up their homes in transit camps where they’ve stayed for years. They’ve done this because their numbers have come up. They’ve been vetted, extremely, and have passed the security and medical clearances that allow them to board a plane for America.

What happens to them in the aftermath of an executive order? Their medical and security clearances will expire during the “pause.” They will go back to a camp that no longer has a place for them, having given up their possessions in advance of the trip. And they will wait…and wait…and wait.

And when the wheels start turning again, if they are lucky enough to get back to that airport, who will greet them when they land? The pause and the smaller numbers of refugees allowed once it’s lifted will mean a drastic and sudden decrease in funds for refugee resettlement agencies. Tireless workers doing it much more for love than for money will be out of work during this pause, and will need to find jobs elsewhere. Agencies like our local office of CWS will need months or years to rebuild the capacity lost in a matter of weeks. 

As the verse teaches it, when the end of the story is written, we shall come to know. When the end of the story is written, what will we have done? When the end of the story is written, what will we be able to tell our children? When the end of the story is written, with whom will we be standing?

 

Teachings on Inauguration Day 2017/Parashat Sh’mot 5777

Before the Reading

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks opens one of his masterful collections of Torah commentaries with the following story, told about the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe.

“We must live with the times,” the Rebbe said.

The disciples, sitting around the table, eagerly awaiting the master’s words, were perplexed. “Live with the times? Isn’t that what the enemies of faith are always saying? The past is dead – long live the future? Surely we believe the opposite, that God’s word is eternal, that certain things do not change, that values and principles and laws are constant. To be a Jew is to be beyond time. What then does the Rebbe mean when he says, We must live with the times?”

“What I mean,” said the Rebbe, “is that we must live with the parashat hashavua, the weekly portion of the Torah.” Continue reading

Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham, Opening Blessing

Fundraising Breakfast at Judea Reform Congregation, October 26, 2016.

May we bless this city, still too violent, with peace.

May we bless this city with our hands,
hands reaching out to people coming home,
guiding them on their path of reconciliation.

May we bless this city with our hearts,
hearts bearing witness to each needless death,
Moving us from vigil to action.

May we bless this city with our eyes,
eyes open to the aggressions,
big and small, intentional and unconscious,
that arise from our own bias and that of others.

May we bless this city with our voices,
voices that demand an end to the school-to-prison pipeline
voices that insist upon meaningful criminal justice reform,
voices that shout from the rooftops, not one more gun death.

May our hands, our hearts, our eyes, and our voices
be the blessings we so badly need.

Amen.

Standing for Voting Rights

Min hameitzar karati yah; anani bamerchav yah.
I cried out to God because everything was so cramped; God answered: “Make the circle bigger!”

Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifney Adonai Eloheychem, our Torah reading begins. Before we read, we’ll break down a few key verses and see what they have to teach us about turning away from narrow-minded ideas and the narrowly-drawn lines that enforce them, and embracing a much broader view of who we are as a nation. Continue reading

Choice

Kol Nidrei Night, 5777/October 11, 2016

I heard from several of you that the visual aids in last week’s sermons were the very best part, which I am choosing to take as a compliment. I thought I’d bring one into this evening’s sermon as well.

_images_uploads_album_Album_Cover_7It’s a copy of “This is Where I Live,” a 2016 release from Soul legend William Bell, and side one, track one provides us with a foundational text for this evening’s teaching. The song is called “The Three of Me,” and it begins with these words:

 

Last night I had a dream
and there were three of me.
There was the man I was, the man I am,
and the man I want to be.

I love that image. Life’s journey is one on which we can and do grow, and at a certain point that growth is so complete that we are essentially someone else. Furthermore, this feat can be accomplished multiple times in the course of one’s life. 

I find this observation about our capacity for growth and change all the more interesting in light of this fact: William Bell also wrote the iconic Albert King hit, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Maybe you’ve heard it: “Born under a bad sign. Been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

712XQGdJsrL._SL1428_Here’s that album cover, decorated with a variety of symbols representing chance, fate, and bad luck. Snake Eyes. A Black Cat. Friday the Thirteenth. Poison.

The two songs, penned more than fifty years apart by the same writer, offer two very different views of the human condition, don’t they? One celebrates our capacity to take charge of our destiny; the other bemoans our lot as hapless victims of circumstance. That divergence is memorable, and worth exploring. Let’s do so by connecting these two songs to a third, one which I hope is becoming familiar to you:

Min hametzar karati yah, anani bamerchav yah….

Continue reading

A Heart of Many Rooms

Min hameitzar karati Yah – Anani Bamerchav Yah.
I called to Yah in dire straits; Yah answered me from a spacious place.

It’s hard to imagine more dire straits than those in which Abraham and Isaac found themselves in that moment before the angel intervened. Isaac bound on the altar, Abraham with the knife in hand, the task before him crystal-clear. “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him as an offering.” Isaac, as our tradition has it, was a willing sacrifice, his single-minded commitment to the cause of obedience to God’s command a perfect match for his father’s. The fourteenth-century teacher Bachya ben Asher is representative: “At first, Isaac didn’t know that he was to be the sacrifice. But…we learn he was at peace with the matter. The two walked on together, with the same intent. One to slaughter, and the other to be slaughtered.”

*    *    *

This is a d’var torah about finding a shared purpose and walking together, even down difficult paths. It’s about friendship, and it’s about conflict. But the good kind of conflict. Yes, there’s a good kind of conflict. Let’s start there. Continue reading