Category Archives: Uncategorized

“A Name for Ourselves”

Judea Reform Congregation, Parashat Noach

Four miles to the east of where we learn and pray tonight, in the Hayti neighborhood, sits a field littered with the concrete slabs of a public housing project. From 1967 until 2007 Fayette Place stood, before it was bought by developers, razed to the ground, and then left waiting for market conditions that never arrived.

Here and there, a few steps survived the wrecking ball. My colleague, Rev. William Lucas has called them, poetically and tragically, “the steps to nowhere.” That image came to mind this week as I studied parashat noach, and specifically the eleventh chapter of Genesis, where we read the story of the Tower of Babel. I imagine the great ziggurats, Mesopotamian fortress-temples which inspired the story of the tower, after they’d crumbled but before they’d been completely dismantled or covered over by the sands of time. It must have been something, to see those ruins, those steps to nowhere. Continue reading

Let us make humankind: the power to imagine

I was up before dawn today. Sitting in my living room, I watched the yahrzeit candle burn. For a few minutes I thought about the people whose lives are conjured up whenever I light one. They are the same people whose names I will review this afternoon at yizkor, and each name will stir up memories. What would they make of all of this? What would they think about my being a rabbi? What would they think about my being a reform rabbi? What would they make of my life, my family, of this world?

The same candle points me in the other direction, too. Who will remember me? How will I be remembered? Will yahrzeit candles still burn in Jewish homes on Yom Kippur, and in synagogues? What will the people who kindle the flame be thinking as they look back? Pre-dawn thoughts in my living room on this day of kapparah and teshuvah, healing and homecoming. Continue reading

Let us make humankind: the interdependence of all beings (Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5778)

Olam chesed yibaneh. The world is built with chesed, Lovingkindness. Last night, we studied a text which playfully gave Lovingkindness – the angel named “Lovingkindness,” that is – credit for building us, inasmuch as she took our side in the celestial debate over whether humankind should be created. This morning, we’ll explore another midrash on the phrase na’aseh adam b’tzalmeinu kid’muteinu, less fanciful and, in some ways, more rooted in the value of chesed. Continue reading

Let us make humankind: Love, Truth, Justice, and Peace

v’al kol yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, v’imru amen…

Did you catch that little change in the text? In our new prayer book, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, “all who dwell on earth,” joins aleinu v’al kol yisra’el, “us, [and] all Israel,” in the prayer for peace. Many Reform Jews have been adding that phrase for some time, editing the written words before them on the fly. With our new machzor, the printed page has at last caught up with what is increasingly our theology, and our practice.

The rationale is well-stated in the note at the bottom of the page: “What threatens our world today is…the burning question of the extent to which individuals throughout the world choose particularistic allegiance to their tribe alone rather than universalistic responsibility to the rest of humankind.” In the face of that threat, how can we let particularistic allegiance have the last, indeed the only, word as we pray for peace? We simply cannot, and I am grateful for this innovation in our prayer book.

Hayom Harat Olam, we say of this day: “today the world is born anew.” Among the many things that Rosh Hashanah is, it is understood by our tradition to be the anniversary of the world’s coming into being. Five thousand, seven hundred seventy-eight years ago today – so the Rabbis say – a six-day period of creativity culminated with the fashioning of humanity, pinnacle of God’s Creation. In splendid solitude, God spoke this world into being, took stock, pronounced it good, and then rested. It’s quite a story! Continue reading

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

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.


An Open Letter to the Triangle Jewish Community

So sad to have to write a letter like this, and praying that our people can heal their divisions…

We, the undersigned rabbis serving in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, condemn the current campaign to vilify our colleagues, Rabbis Eric and Jennifer Solomon. We know them both to be true ohavei yisra’el (“lovers of Israel”). We deplore the tactics being deployed against them, which have no place in our communal discourse. We call upon the small group of people waging this campaign to cease their efforts immediately, and to apologize unequivocally.

This we know to be true: Eric and Jenny are deeply connected to the Jewish State, visiting frequently and instilling a love for our Land and People in their congregants and their own children. Eric is a graduate of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinical Leadership Initiative and Jenny is a Wexner Fellow; this places them solidly within the mainstream of American Jewish leadership. We also know them to be deeply committed to their vision for the State of Israel: a state where equality and pluralism are the norm, where justice is abundant, and where peace flourishes. They, like many American Jews and many Israelis, advocate for two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors. And they, like many American Jews and many Israelis, deplore the continued military occupation as inconsonant with Jewish and Zionist values. Continue reading

A navel-gazing, rabble-rousing Rabbi

Tonight I want to explore a theme I introduced in the September bulletin: namely, the connection between contemplation and action. You may recall that I wrote there about a coincidence of rabbis who seem to gravitate to both activities. I’ve noticed that among the growing cadre of rabbis who are involve in faith-based community organizing of the sort we do through Border Interfaith, many just happen to be participants or alumni of a program run by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. This program brings rabbis together twice a year for a week of silence, yoga, meditation, prayer and study, supported by weekly chevruta study and ongoing contemplative work in the interim. I was talking about this with a colleague, Rabbi David Stern of Dallas, during one of the conversational meals on our largely silent retreat. My question, asked tongue firmly in cheek, is, ”Why do the same rabbis go in for “navel gazing” and “rabble rousing?”

(Let me be clear: I use the term “navel gazing” and rabble rousing” with a sense of irony, so when you hear me say “navel gazer” or “rabble rouser,” please supply the necessary quotation marks, sparing me the indignity of having to make “air quotes” throughout the sermon.)

As I think about the tension between “navel gazers” and “rabble rousers,” my mind is drawn to the tension between two ways of seeing reality. One way of thinking about the world, and about God, is through the lens of “self” and “other.”  I am me, and God is Someone or Something Else. I am me, and you are someone else. I am me, and all of this is everything else. In this way of seeing, we are separate beings, acting on one another for good or for ill.

This way of looking at the world is useful, even indispensible. We could not make our way through a single day, or even a single hour, of public life without sorting our experiences, categorizing them, evaluating them. We rightly feel closer to some people than others, because they are our family, or our friends. We rightly defend ourselves against those who have taken on the role of our “enemies.” How lucky we are to be able to make distinctions, and blessed is the One who grants us that ability: Baruch hanoten lasechvi vinah l’havchin bein yom uvein lailah.

But this is not the only way to see the world. Mystics, whatever their particular religious tradition, have another outlook, no less real or true. In their way of seeing, there is just the One. This way of seeing recognizes no borders, no “self” and “other,” no “me” and “everything else,” no “God” and “not God.” In this way of seeing, all division melts away, we cease to be separate beings and are recognized as parts of a greater whole. In the Jewish mystical tradition, that greater whole is called Ein Sof, the Infinite, Endless One.

The Ba’al Shem Tov, a Jewish mystic of the eighteenth century who began the religious revival movement known as Hasidism, offered his students this parable to help them understand the mystical take on reality:

A great king sought to test his beloved son, to see if he would truly seek him out. He created the optical illusion of a beautiful palace. All who came to see the king, it was announced, would have to come through that palace. One person came to see the king and got only to the outer courtyards. There he came upon a barrel of silver coins, glistening in the sunlight. They were so beautiful that he turned aside to gaze upon them and touch them. He is there still, playing with his silver coins. Another was stronger, and he traversed the outer courtyards until he came to the chambers within. But there he found vessels of pure gold so lovely that he could not take his eyes from them. He is there to this day, staring at the gold. One by one the visitors were turned aside by the beauties of the palace. But then the king’s true son came along. He saw immediately that the palace was an illusion, that there was nothing but the king himself.

As Arthur Green interprets the parable in his book Eh’yeh,

God and universe are related not primarily as Creator and creature, which sounds as though they are separate from one another, but as deep structure and surface. God lies within or behind the façade of all that is. In order to discover God – or the real meaning or the essential Oneness of Being – we need to turn inward, to look more deeply at ourselves and the world around us. Scratch the surface of reality and you will discover God.

So which is the “right” way to see the world? Are we separate beings, or is it all One? “Yes,” and “Yes.” Yes, we act in the world as separate beings, at a surface level. And “yes,” at a deeper structural level we are indeed all One. That one truth is “deeper” than the other does not make it “truer” than the other, in my opinion at least. I have the need for both ways of seeing. “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:  a time to rouse the rabble, and a time to gaze at the navel.”

To understand just how muddled the lines between “navel gazing” and “rabble rousing” really are, see if you can fill in the blank and identify the speaker:

The _____________ is that unique person to whom the common good is the greatest personal value. He is that person who genuinely and completely believes in mankind. The _____________ is so completely identified with mankind that he personally shares the pain, the injustices, and the sufferings of all his fellow men.

It’s a description of the righteous person, right? Maybe from Chaim Potok’s book The Chosen, as Professor David Malter explains to his son why Danny Saunders is being raised in silence? Or maybe it’s some Buddhist teacher offering a working definition of the bodhisattva? Perhaps it’s a Christian mystic reflecting on what is sometimes called “Christ-Consciousness?”

Actually, the words come a 1946 book, Reveille for Radicals, and they are the controversial community organizer Saul Alinsky’s definition of what it means to be a “radical.” Having nothing whatsoever to do with “right” or “left,” the radical is simply the one who is “so completely identified” with all humanity that she “shares the pain, the injustices, and the sufferings” of her fellow women and men.

Or, consider Tom Joad. Saying goodbye to Ma near the end of John Steinbeck’s great novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Tom hints at his growing understanding of the Castle of Illusion by describing the effect Preacher Casey has had upon him: “Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.” Tom Joad, it seems, is a mystic!

But that mystical truth does not lead Tom to escape the vigilante man in a monastery or an ashram. No, it sends him back to the picket lines. Knowing where the path might lead his particular piece of the one big soul, he nevertheless reassures Ma Joad:

I’ll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there…I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready and where people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build. I’ll be there, too.

To the words of Saul and Tom, let me add a story from my own experience.

In mid-March I received a phone call from a woman at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth. Lisa works with the bone marrow matching program, and she was calling to let me know that I was a probable match for a young boy suffering from leukemia. As Lisa put it, “you’re on the target; now we need to see if you’re a bull’s-eye.” Would I consent to some further testing of the sample I’d given some years ago? Of course.

I was really shaken as I hung up the phone. I took some time to sit with the feelings that were stirred up by the possibility – however remote it might still be – that I was going to be able to fulfill the mitzvah of saving a life! I called Alanna. I talked to some friends. I read the information that was sent to me outlining the procedure and the risks. I filled out the consent form to continue the process.

And then, I waited. For almost two months, I waited to hear back from Lisa. When I did, it was to tell me that I was now closer to the “bull’s’-eye.” Next step: some further tests. Blood was drawn and tested, and I turned out to be the one. Incredible. And, please know that I’m aware that this may sound a little narcissistic, and of course I wish the kid didn’t have leukemia in the first place, but I was poised to be a part of saving a human life.

The last communication from Lisa came in early July, informing me that the next call, if it came, would be to come to Fort Worth right away…but that the patient was no longer in a position, health-wise, to accept a transplant. I was crushed. Again, at the risk of sounding a bit self-centered I will admit that I was partially crushed at not having the chance to be an anonymous hero. But mostly, I was crushed that a little kid had missed his window of opportunity for a transplant. Would he get better anyway? Would he survive? I may never know, and unless the call comes, I will always wonder.

Reflecting on this experience, I find much food for thought of both the navel-gazing and rabble-rousing varieties.

The navel-gazing part of me, which had the opportunity to sit with these experiences for many silent hours on retreat in July, continues to marvel at the way in which we are all so deeply connected. A little boy’s body goes off the rails (for reasons unknown) and starts producing leukocytes like crazy. Meanwhile, the femur of some guy in El Paso is making his medicine. How odd, yet how very right. We are, after all, just parts of one big soul, and my “little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.” Given the interconnectedness of all things in that greater whole, how could it not be the case that my femur has his medicine, even as someone else’s femur has mine?

The practical implications are staggering. There’s a genre of Jewish folktale in which the protagonist is rewarded for showing kindness to a poor person who is really Elijah the Prophet in disguise. The point of these tales is that we should treat everyone as if he or she could be the key to the redemption of the world. Out of my experience with the marrow registry, I humbly suggest a much more self-interested version of the story; now when I feel my patience being tested by someone, I try to imagine that the person is my donor match. Am I still prepared to write off their opinion as unimportant? Do I continue to care less about them because they are outside my circle of family or friends, of likes or dislikes? Can I really dismiss them so easily? They don’t have to be Elijah the Prophet, ready to save the world; they’ve got the magic femur that may one day save me.

So much for the navel gazing. Is there rabble rousing to do around bone marrow? There sure is. Since this experience, I’ve learned that there’s a great disparity in registration between Caucasians and ethnic minorities. My match had a much better chance of receiving a transplant because he was, by accident of birth, white. The marrow registry needs funds to do outreach and education in minority communities, and it needs sponsoring organizations to hold drives in those same communities. What can I do…what can we do…to help?

And what can I do…what can we do…to make it so that a kid in need of a bone marrow transplant doesn’t watch the clock run out while weeks and months pass between each stage of the matching process? I don’t know all the circumstances, but I can’t help but feel that some of the very things our nation is debating these days – waste in the system, defensive medicine, inefficiencies and bureaucracies (both public and private) – all had something to do with this process taking so long.

One more implication: my friend Dr. Byron Chesbro (who deserves credit as medical advisor to this sermon) tell me that the cutting edge of research now focuses on making it easier to perform transplants further out from that proverbial bull’s-eye.  And so I ask, What can I do to be sure that such research gets the funding it needs, so that every parent will someday be a suitable match for his or her own child?

So my wonder at the interconnectedness of all beings is inextricably linked to my righteous indignation and even my anger at the injustices inherent in the situation. I cannot separate the wonder from the anger, nor do I want to. Properly understood and practiced, I find that a well cared-for interior life is the engine that leads me to work, passionately and tirelessly, for our community. In the same way, the relationships I’ve formed with others through my involvement in the pursuit of social justice are constant reminders of the commonality of our human condition and our radical equality before God.  Both animate me. What can I say? I’m a navel-gazing, rabble-rousing rabbi.

We are all, at some level, navel-gazing, rabble-rousing beings. Some of us lean more in one direction than the other, and we probably find one way of being speaks more clearly to us than the other at different moments in our lives. To be fully human is to seek out the welfare of the other (remember the lesson from last week, “it is not good for humans to live and work alone”); to be fully aware is to recognize that there is no “other” in the transcendent unity that is God.

May this day of contemplation and fasting give us new insight into both ways of seeing, and may we enter each day that follows grounded in the deep unity of all being, reaching ever outward in the search for justice for all beings.