It was a scary time in the life of the young nation. Political infighting was rampant. A demagogue posing as a populist rose up and attempted to grab power. Though sustained and sated like no nation before, the people still felt insecure. A faction lived on appeals to nostalgia…though the “good ole’ days” were anything but. A woefully understaffed and overworked judiciary was utterly incapable of dispensing justice. Foreign policy? Forget about it. Enemies were on the horizon, and the tasks that lay before this nation seemed to them to be far beyond their capacity. They felt small. They were afraid. Yes, it was a scary time..for Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading
In 2013-14, I had the privilege of writing a year’s worth of Torah commentaries through the lens of Jewish Mindfulness for the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. Every once in while, I’ve found that one of those commentaries seems to really speak to the moment. Below is my essay on Korach from 2014; at the end of an awful week, filled with so much heat and very little light…
Don’t just do something, sit there!
I have a friend and mentor whose mantra for tough situations is this: “In the presence of strong emotions, do nothing.” As I understand it, my friend is not advocating for a fear-based paralysis, but for a clear-eyed, mindful response of the sort which usually comes only after other responses have been considered and (wisely) set aside.
His advice reminds me of the clever and wise title of our teacher Sylvia Boorstein’s book about mindfulness retreats, cited above. Through our practice, we hope to “awake…to the happiness of the uncomplicated moment,” as Sylvia has it (p. 3). “And yet habits and challenges lead us to suffer, and then to act out of our suffering in ways that bring more suffering… We complicate moments. Hardly anything happens without the mind spinning it up into an elaborate production.” Continue reading
June 13, 2016, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Remarks at a vigil in memory of the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre.
Sunday morning’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub took place during both Pride Month and Ramadan, timing significant for both the LGBTQ victims of the crime and the nominally Muslim perpetrator. For gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and the queer community, the timing is especially painful. The same can be said for the vast majority of American Muslims who are being unjustly tagged as complicit in the crime, or sympathetic to its goals.
Sunday also happened to be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a day which my Tradition marks as the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah. It is the day on which God proclaimed the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, sending the Word down from heaven into the world. It is a day on which Jews typically greet each other with the words chag sameach, “may your holiday be joyful.” This year, it was anything but. Continue reading
Caring Community Shabbat, May 20, 2016.
“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” So wrote Paul Kalanithi, a young father, a physician, and the victim of an aggressive form of lung cancer. Kalanithi’s journey is chronicled in a powerful book, When Breath Becomes Air, published posthumously earlier this year. Face to face with his own mortality, he recognized that, while some tasks can never be fully accomplished, the striving never ceases. Rabbi Tarfon said it well, in the pages of Pirkei Avot: “You are not required to finish the job; neither are you free to desist from it.” Continue reading
A recent guest column in the Chapel Hill News, prompted by the visit to Chapel Hill Town Council of an Israeli legislative delegation, concluded with an acknowledgment that there are Jewish groups both the United States and Israel which are committed to bringing about peace and justice for Palestinians. Unfortunately, the tortured path the columnist took to arrive at that conclusion is a lesson in how not to advance those goals. Continue reading
This is what happens when talk in the office turns to the nuts-and-bolts of synagogue bulletins: pulling up some examples of formats from my tenure in El Paso, I came across an old Rabbi’s Column (October 2010) that remains all too relevant, six years later. In it, I cite statistics about suicide rates among gay teens; for transgender teens, the suicide attempt rate is even more tragic. Much of the research reports that transgender youth are ten times more likely than their cisgender peers to attempt suicide. Like gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth, trans kids who have been bombarded with messages of exclusion and worthlessness are most at risk. I’m reposting this in memory of North Carolina teens Ash Haffner and Blake Brockington, and with the fervent prayer that one particularly odious message of exclusion — H.B. 2 — will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history.
I am writing this column in the last days of the fall festival season. The prescribed emotion is joy. Vesamachta bechagecha, vehayita ach sameach, “You shall rejoice in your festival; be entirely joyful!” I’m doing my best, but it’s hard when the picture that stares at me from every screen is that of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, zichrono livracha Continue reading
My column for the upcoming May-June bulletin, posted now as we begin the counting. Today is One Day of the Omer.
For much of the period covered by this issue of our synagogue bulletin, Jews will be engaged in a practice called sefirat ha’omer, the “counting of the sheaf.” Not a useful translation for conveying much meaning, I know. The practice is based on these verses from Torah:
The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Eternal One for acceptance in your behalf; the priest shall elevate it on the day after the sabbath…and from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering– the day after the sabbath– you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week– fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal One (Lev 23:9-11;15-16).
While nearly two millennia have passed since the days when offerings of grain were our mode of worship, we still “count the omer,” memorializing the ancient practice.
Counting the omer is a reminder of our history, and it is much more. By counting the days from Pesach to Shavuot, we do a number of things.
First, counting links the two festivals together. Shavuot, which celebrates the giving and receiving of Torah, only makes sense in the context of our liberation from Egypt; our liberation can best be understood as setting down avdut, slavery, in order to enter a covenant of avodah, service. The Rabbis creatively played with the Hebrew word for “engraved” (as in the words on the tablets), charut, reading it as cheyrut, “freedom.” To their minds, freedom is not a free-for-all, but disciplined choice. Pesach and Shavuot: you can’t have one without the other.
Next, counting reinforces a sense of forward motion from one holiday to the next. I wrote two months ago about the broad sweep of this holiday season, beginning at Purim and ending with Shavuot. From Pesach to Shavuot, that sweep is explicit: “One….two….three…” Along the way we encounter the seventh day of Pesach, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the State of Israel’s Memorial and Independence Days, and an ancient festival that falls on day thirty-three.
In my experience, the period of the sefirah is, most of all, an opportunity to cultivate awareness. Each night as dusk falls (or, if we’re regular davveners, as part of the evening service), we stop and take notice of the passage of time. We recite a blessing, and take note of the number of days that have passed since Pesach. If the omer period is about linking the festivals and propelling us forward, the moment of counting is about slowing us down. “Teach us to number our days; let us cultivate hearts of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
D’var Torah at Judea Reform Congregation, April 1, 2016.
The Priests were our teachers and guides in the realms of both ritual and ethics, and we are currently in the middle of their book, Leviticus. This week’s portion, called shemini, includes among other things, rules regarding which animals were considered proper, or kosher, for consumption.
Much ink has been spilled in the worlds of traditional Jewish scholarship and also in the academy trying to understand just why animals are on the menu, or off. Some see allegorical lessons whereby we ingest only animals whose character traits we find appealing. For others, kashrut amounts to an ancient health code. Some believe the purpose was simply to create an idiosyncratic diet as a way of cultivating group cohesion (you aren’t going to mix with others if you can’t dine with them!). Some see it as a way of cultivating compassion, as if to say, “your appetites conflict with the very lives of other beings, and so your appetites need to be limited.” And for others, the whole point is that the list is arbitrary: it’s there to teach discipline.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that to live within these particular mitzvot requires a well-developed capacity for havdalah, or “discernment.” The verse near the end of Leviticus 11, the lengthy chapter describing the various species, says it this way: l’havdil bein hatame uvein hatahor — “to discern, or distinguish, between that which is improper and that which is proper.” Continue reading
D’var Torah at Judea Reform, March 18, 2016…
The Shabbat just before Purim is called shabbat zachor, the Sabbath of “Remember.” It gets its name from the opening words of a special Torah passage (Deut 25:17-19) which tells us to “remember what Amalek did to us on our journey.” As Purim approaches, we note the connection between Amalek and Haman, and many a sermon on Shabbat Zachor has called attention to the need for Jews to be ever-vigilant in the world, on guard against the oldest hatred of all. Continue reading
Last-Minute Larry. I came by my childhood nickname honestly, preferring the rush that accompanied a tight deadline to the calm sense of accomplishment that came with finishing my assignments early. Not much has changed, I guess. Sharon Halperin, who directs the Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education of North Carolina gave us several weeks’ notice that we’d be welcoming teachers from around the state to our services this evening as part of their attendance at a two-day workshop entitled “Witnessing the Witnesses: Teaching the Holocaust in North Carolina.” Still, my message was crafted in the aftermath of this week’s Super Tuesday primaries. Oh, why deny it? My message was crafted in the aftermath of last night’s Republican debate on Fox. Continue reading