Three months ago I started taking guitar lessons, and on Friday, May 1, I played in public for the first time. I look forward to developing this skill to touch Jewish souls with music at Temple Torat Emet and beyond. Watch my video!
For fans of Harry Potter, May 2 is a significant day on the calendar, as it’s known in the JK Rowling series as the date of the Battle of Hogwarts. For those who write off the series as mere fantasy, I’ve got news for you: the magic of Harry Potter has been scientificall proven to be real.
A newly released scientific study called “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter” analyzed attitudes of elementary, high school and college students before and after reading Harry Potter stories and watching Harry Potter movies.
Harry Potter is a boy wizard who helps the forces of good overcome forces of evil. Harry wasn’t brought up in aristocracy of wizard life. At the same time, many wizards in the stories who come from more privileged backgrounds turn out to be the villains of the story.
Researchers find exposure to Harry Potter stories changes attitudes of children of young people toward people of disadvantaged backgrounds such as immigrants, refugees and gay people.
It turns out Harry Potter is an effective tool against prejudice.
Most effective way to fight prejudice is to build empathy through story telling where we see ourselves in another person’s shoes.
The magic of Harry Potter that reduces prejudice is needed today more than ever. The riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died while in police custody, is the latest chapter in a painful narrative arc that has shaken our nation over the past year. There is no justification for lawlessness and violence. At the same time, the pent up anger in the African-American community is palpable and understandable.
This past December, I discussed the massive protests that took place in Ferguson, MO, and New York City in response to cases of alleged racially motivated police brutality in those cities.
As I noted then, I’m sure there are countless examples of law enforcement officers doing their job in protecting our community in ways that don’t make the news. At the same time, to a casual observer, such as me, something seems to be broken in our law enforcement system. Our nation thrives as a nation of justice, and one of the pillars of a just society is trust. One of the greatest threats to trust is fear, particularly fear of people who are different.
Parashat Kedoshim envisions a world that is free of fear, a world where justice reigns. In fact, the essence of a just society is Kedushah, holiness, the mantra of the portion. One of the most memorable half-verses in the Torah is found in Parashat Kedoshim (19: 18): ve’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha—love your neighbor as yourself. What we often overlook is the first half of that verse: lo tikom v’lo tisor et b’nai amecha—You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.
The 16th century Polish scholar and aristoctrat Saul Katzenellenbogen was said to have had such a prodigious memory that he never forgot anything he read or heard. However, he had a knack for forgetting when someone offended him (Etz Hayim, 697).
If only it were so easy. How tantalizing easy it seems to fulfill this verse: don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge and love your neighbor as yourself. And yet, this is as difficult a verse to fulfill in real life as any in the Torah. How much destruction and bloodshed could have been spared in history if this verse’s instructions were just a little easier to follow?
It’s not easy, yet it’s our responsibility as Jews to work on internalizing the verse’s message. We must learn from and support those who seek to put this verse’s teachings into action. In December, I discussed the work of Constance Rice, a prominent civil rights attorney. She became known in the 1990s for, as she puts it, “going to war with the Los Angeles Police Department.”
After years of suing the LAPD countless times over minority rights, Rice changed tactics and found ways to work with the department. They worked together to achieve reform and establish trust.
Some of that change included LAPD officers going into housing projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people’s lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities closer together.
Rice interviewed over 900 police officers and was surprised by the extent to which they opened up to her, as if in a therapy session. Rice recalls:
“They would say things like, “Ms. Rice I’m scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I’m really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they’ve got great hulk strength and I’m afraid they’re going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men.” I mean this [comes from] cops who are 6’4″.…[W]hen cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”
Rice has worked with the LAPD on improving life in poor neighborhoods and has found this causes police to be less fearful:
“Not only does it cause cops to be less fearful, it causes the community to embrace them. I have taken a group of 50 cops and the chief (Charlie) Beck let me train them. I trained them in what I call community partnership policing. The first thing I tell these cops is that you are not in the arrest business; you are in the trust business. We are going to train you in Public Trust Policing. It goes beyond community policing. What it does is it puts police in a position of helping a community solve its problems. These cops come into the black housing projects and they said to these populations who hate them ‘We know you hate us, but we’re here to serve. We’re going to win your trust.’”
Constance Rice has tapped into the magic of Harry Potter and has shown that we can overcome hatred of the other in favor of empathy. Half a century after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, our nation still has open scars from racial division that has plagued us since the founding of this country. Throughout history, we find that fear of the other brings out the worst in people. At the same time, we find that empathy, properly cultivated can bring about healing and friendship. When we understand one another’s stories, empathy performs magic. And you don’t have to be a wizard. We all possess that power within.
Adonai oz le amo yiten, adonai yevarekh et amav ba shalom, God give strength to all God’s people. And May God bless all God’s people with peace.
Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:
In Leviticus 19 we learn the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (v.18). The tie represents a neighborhood of people–some feeling loved and others not so. Our task in life is to create more smiles and loving kindness.
Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:
In Parashat Tazria-Metzora, the kohanim (priests) check the people for skin ailments and determine whether or not they are in a state of ritual purity to enter the Temple. The tie reflects the medical angle of the the Torah portion. For more insights, check out the G-dcast videos on Tazria and Metzora.
Pope Francis continues to impress me. Since he ascended to the papacy, he has earned the respect of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world and has single-handedly restored dignity not only to the Catholic Church but to organized religion. I have been impressed with Pope Francis’s humility, compassion and the moral clarity with which he speaks. It has been 100 years since World War I was raging in Europe, and at a mass last Sunday the Pope commemorated the start of the mass murder of some 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turks. The government of Turkey takes offense when people call this systematic mass murder a genocide. They prefer to whitewash history, and governments and non-governmental organizations, including many Jewish organizations, have avoided referring to this historic atrocity by what it truly was and so avoid a row with the Turkish government. In this context, it was truly remarkable that Pope Francis this week spoke about what is “widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century.” Turkey promptly recalled its ambassador to the Vatican, and the Pope’s use of the word “genocide” has created a diplomatic row.
Pope Francis didn’t stop there. He put the Armenian genocide in the context of setting the stage for the Shoah that decimated the Jewish people, Stalin’s mass murders of his people, and the current scourge of militant Islamic terror in the guise of ISIS, Boko Haram and Al Shabab.
“It seems that humanity is incapable of putting a halt to the shedding of innocent blood,” Francis said. “It seems that the human family has refused to learn from its mistakes caused by the law of terror, so that today, too, there are those who attempt to eliminate others with the help of a few, and with the complicit silence of others who simply stand.” The Pope implored his listeners to hear the “muffled and forgotten cry” of endangered Christians who today are “ruthlessly put to death–decapitated, crucified, burned alive–or forced to leave their homeland.” Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes that Pope Francis, to his credit, refuses to downplay that Armenians were victims not only of genocide but of Islamic jihad, similar to non-Muslims subjected to militant Islamic terror today. He writes that during World War I the leaders of Turkey openly boasted about their massacre of Armenian Christians and that only later as Turkey sought to curry favor with the West, did Turkey change course. However, rather than accept responsibility as post-World War II Germany did with respect to the Shoah, Turkey has stonewalled and threatened to cut off relations with anyone who refers to the Armenian genocide as genocide. I applaud the Pope for his moral courage to speak the truth.
This past week, we Jews paused on Yom HaShoah to recall the brutality to our own people in Europe in the 20th century. We continue to bear witness to the unspeakable brutality and murder that our people suffered in Europe and that still scars our community. Like decent people everywhere, we are baffled that while human innovation over the last century has advanced our civilization in so many ways at the tools of innovation have been used to carry out unthinkable mass murder and brutality.
Parashat Shemini comes to remind us that we as a civilization stand at the precipice between creation and destruction. Rabbi David Wolpe writes that the most important day of creation in Genesis is not the first day when God created the heaven and earth, nor the sixth day when God created human beings nor even the seventh day when God rested. Rabbi Wolpe writes that the most important day was the eighth day. We began our lives in a real sense then, on the fateful eighth day –Yom Shemini. What happened then was not so great once God turned creation over to us. Adam and Eve get in trouble; Cain and Abel have their strife; humanity completely degrades.
When we turn to Leviticus, Parashat Shemini offers echoes of the fateful eighth day after creation. Only now what was created over the previous seven days was the Tabernacle and the sacrificial system. With a week’s worth of opening festivities over, it’s time to transition to regular function. It’s precisely at this time that we have the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu who perish on the altar when they bring eish zarah, strange fire.
Rabbi Wolpe writes: “We are blessed and cursed with the eighth day. For as we are given the start to creation, we are also mandated to carry it forward.” On Yom HaShoah, we recall the worst “eighth day” in human history, the twelve dark years of Nazi terror in Europe. The Nazis arrogated to themselves the powers of God that have roots in the initial eighth day of creation when God let go of the reins and said to humans, you run the world. At the same time, out of the ashes of the Shoah is a glimmer of hope that humanity can muster the courage to confront evil, rebuild and affirm life.
In the cause of stamping out tyranny in our world, Pope Francis was helpful in calling the Armenian genocide by it rightful name. I appreciate that a man of his stature and moral authority is not afraid to identify evil when he sees it. In a sense, he eloquently identifies the choice that we have in shaping our continuous eighth day of creation. Will we ignore evil or will we bear witness to evil and build a world of goodness, hope and love. The choice is ours.
Note: At press time, the link to the quotations from Rabbi Wolpe was not working, even though I have referred to that link previously. I will try to find the correct link and embed it in this posting.
We learn when we’re young never play with matches. In Parashat Shemini, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, bring eish zarah, strange fire to the altar. They are tragically stricken down as punishment. The Torah provides scant rationale, Rabbis throughout the ages have struggled to find an adequate explanation for this incident. Whatever explanation one chooses, there is no ambiguity of Aaron’s shock: Vayidom Aharon, Aaron was silent. Yet Aaron goes on living, establishing Jewish religious observance for generations to come. In our world, we are bombarded by inexplicable tragedies that often leave us speechless. Our best defiance is to go on living and affirm life.
This year, the American Jewish community celebrates Pesah at an auspicious time in American history. This month marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and the tragic coda to that war, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Last month, March 4, was the anniversary of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural during which he delivered what might be the most spiritual message in American statesmanship, perhaps second only to his own Gettysburg Address. On April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Two days later, April 11, Lincoln delivered his last public address from a balcony at the White House. In that speech, he built upon the Emancipation Proclamation and for the first time in a public setting made the case for the right to vote for African Americans. In the crowd was one John Wilkes Booth who told his companion: “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Three nights later Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York compiled a beautiful Seder Supplement that connects the retelling of the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom to the American story. The power and poetry of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural rests in his acknowledgment of both sides of the conflict. Another leader might have seized the opportunity for triumphalist chest thumping. Not Lincoln. His words set a tone of humility, compassion and forgiveness.
“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Lincoln concludes his address with the stirring words:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
We can only wonder how Lincoln would have governed through the period of Reconstruction. If these words and his prior deeds are any indication, he would have shunned vindictiveness and corruption that plagued his party after the war that paved the way for the unraveling of Reconstruction and decades of Jim Crow governance throughout the South.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, coming so close as it did to his death, serves as a kind of ethical will to the nation, a moral call for healing and unity. What Lincoln challenged our nation to do 150 years ago, we must do for ourselves in our own families.
When we began Pesah, we encountered in the Haggadah the account of the four children, one who is wise, one who is contrary, one who is simple and one who does not know how to ask a question. On the first day of Pesah I suggested that the four children as a group express metaphorically that all kinds of people are welcome at the seder table. Each person is an heir to our received tradition, and each person is a link to coming generations. Moreover, everyone is at the table. With all of the family strife and mishegas that they endure, they are sitting together having a conversation.
On this last day of Pesah, as the holiday lingers for a few more hours, we are called to reflect on the meaning of the holiday and how we can apply it to the rest of the year. As we observe Yizkor, I’d like to suggest that we honor the memory of our departed loved ones and reflect on the feelings of hurt, anger and resentment that enslave us and wield power over us. This Festival of Freedom should be a time of release in which we bind up our families’ wounds. At a vulnerable time such as Yizkor, we recognize that we are all widows and orphans to some extent, and we need one another. Just as there are four children in the Haggadah, there are also four statements that we should express to those close to us: “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you” and “I love you.” Saying these phrases with specific examples of each to people close to us, particularly where there has been rupture, can foster meaningful healing.
Ideally, we express these sentiments when we still have time to enjoy and strengthen a healed relationship. Sometimes, we don’t have an opportunity to do so until a dear one is close to death, but we can still bring about healing. What if a death occurs before we have the chance or before we muster the courage to humble ourselves in this manner? We can still find creative ways to bring about closure–perhaps visiting the grave, writing in a journal or speaking to a photograph of the deceased. The words “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you” and “I love you” have the power to break the shackles of that which enslaves us.
As Jews, we imagine that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt who went forth to freedom. As Americans, we take stock that our nation was built on the foundation of freedom but sullied by the legacy of slavery and that it took the courageous leadership of Lincoln to steer our nation towards the values for which it stands. As individuals, let’s take from the best of our Jewish and American ethos. To paraphrase Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, we pray that our loved ones whom we recall today at Yizkor shall not have died in vain. Rather, each one of us will enjoy a new birth of freedom and that our Jewish values of repentance, compassion and kindness will not perish from the earth.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.