Archive | September, 2018

Those who served their time deserve a second chance

19 Sep

I’d like you to take a moment and think of the worst or the stupidest thing you have ever done in your entire life. Think about that. Now, imagine that for the rest of your life no one will ever let you forget about that act. Imagine if you were constantly seen and treated as if this one single act was the essence of your being. 

Unfortunately, Clarence Office, Jr., has had this experience. Clarence, who is African American, lives in Miami, FL. He served in the U.S. Army for three years in the 1970s and was honorably discharged. Like many veterans, Clarence tragically fell into drug use and was arrested for drug offenses. He served a prison term and paid his debt to society. Clarence now works with the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs and counsels other veterans who have encountered problems with the criminal justice system. Clarence matured into a model citizen and community leader. Because of his drug conviction, however, the State of Florida denies him the foundation of our country’s citizenship: the right to vote. Every election cycle, Clarence is not only reminded of his mistake as a young man, he remains sidelined from participating in our democracy. He paid his debt to society, yet he is continually punished. He has been branded by the State of Florida as an outcast. 

Our Jewish tradition offers an alternative vision for how we treat those who have done teshuvah, who have repented from past mistakes.

אם היה בעל תשובה, לא יאמר לו: זכור מעשיך הראשונים

If one is a penitent, another may not say to him: Remember your earlier deeds.

(Mishnah Bava Metzia 4:10).

When someone has done teshuvah, our tradition provides that we are not supposed to remind that person of the mistakes he or she has made in the past. To do so is considered a verbal assault, an act of deep cruelty. We are here tonight and for the duration of Yom Kippur because in our tradition a person’s whole life should not be judged by one mistake. If you think about it, this is a radical idea that Judaism bequeathed to civilization. In the ancient world, such as in Mesopotamia, it was one strike, and you’re out. A single deviance from a communal norm would result in the loss of a limb or even execution. Our history as Jews hinges on our belief in second chances.

In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet’s words of hope and comfort bear witness to the return of Jews from Babylonian captivity to freedom in the Land of Israel. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and carried Jews into captivity. Our Bible depicts this as if the Babylonians were carrying out God’s punishment of the Jews for their sinful ways. 

Then, the fortune of the Jews turns for the better. Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylonia in 539 BCE and permitted exiled peoples to return to their ancestral homes, including the Jews to Israel. The prophet witnesses this hopeful turn of events (40:2): 

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

And declare to her

ki mal’ah tz’va’ah That her term of service is over,

ki nirtzah avonah That her iniquity is expiated;

For she has received at the hand of the LORD

Double for all her sins.

The prophet reminds the exiled people not to despair. Yes, they sinned, but they have served their sentence. Through the prophet, God is urging the Jewish people to return home. The people made mistakes and suffered dire consequences. Yet, they repented and paid their debt. Now it’s time for the Jewish people to move on and rebuild their lives and their community.

The phrase ki mal’ah tz’va’ah, “her term of service is over,” evokes a prisoner completing a sentence and returning to society rehabilitated. Unlike the Biblical model, though, America today is one of the most unforgiving places in the industrialized world when it comes to former felons returning to society.

Common practice in the United States has been to deny voting rights to current and former felons, in some cases permanently. Individuals who break the rules of society, the thinking goes, should not play a role in making the rules of society. I believe such reasoning is faulty. A former felon who returns from a prison sentence pays taxes and is expected to follow other societal norms. People who make a mistake when young, paid the price and learned important life lessons have gained unique perspective and wisdom. They should have a seat at our communal table to shape our future. Instead, returning citizens are denied the essence of citizenship—the right to vote. Voting is not only a right; it is a responsibility to one’s community. Yet, too many are denied access to this civic duty.

The number of disenfranchised citizens is staggering. Nationwide some 6 million people cannot vote due to past felony convictions. People of color are disproportionately represented. The shocking number of African Americans who are legally barred from voting and other civil rights due to felony convictions prompted lawyer and author Michelle Alexander to coin the phrase “the new Jim Crow,” in her comprehensive book by that title. She argues that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was effectively undone by the last 30 years of mass incarceration that have had the effect of denying millions of African Americans their civil rights. 

Our State of Florida has one of the country’s harshest policies such that one out of every ten adults in our state cannot vote.  Florida is one of only three states, along with Kentucky and Iowa, that permanently disenfranchises all citizens with felony convictions. In Florida alone, upwards of 1.5 million people with prior convictions, mostly African Americans, remain disenfranchised. Do the math. About one quarter of all African Americans in the country who have lost the right to vote are right here in Florida. 

This year, a grassroots organization Floridians for a Fair Democracy launched the Second Chances Florida campaign, which collected over one million signatures and succeeded to send a ballot initiative to Florida voters this November.  If approved, Amendment 4 would restore voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet restore their voting rights on a case by case basis (However one feels about these two exclusions, the amendment would greatly increase the number of eligible voters).The amendment requires 60% approval at the ballot box in order to become law. 

If we Floridians vote yes and pass Amendment 4, then we will repair a gross injustice.  It not only will restore a basic right to our fellow citizens, it will empower returning citizens to feel invested as responsible citizens in communities throughout our state. Their deeper stake in society’s future will foster many more leaders like Clarence Office, and our society will be richer for it.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “To those who fully open themselves to it, Yom Kippur is a life-transforming experience. It tells us that God, who created the universe in love and forgiveness, reaches out to us in love and forgiveness, asking us to love and forgive others. God never asked us not to make mistakes. All He asks is that we acknowledge our mistakes, learn from them, grow through them, and make amends where we can” (YK Mahzor, lxiii).

Yom Kippur calls upon us to  learn from our mistakes and grow from them, and it calls upon us to be compassionate towards our neighbors who have made mistakes and grown from them. 

Our ancestors were punished for their mistakes, but when they paid their debt, God restored them to their former glory.  I pray that God will open our hearts to those in our midst who deserve a second chance. Then, Clarence Office and many others will be able to vote, as is their right. 

Let us restore justice to our state and our country and build a world of love. 

Amen.

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“I Like You Just the Way You Are”: The Torah of Mister Rogers

19 Sep

 

Mister Rogers teaching “I like you just the way you are” resonates on Yom Kippur.

This summer, I went into a time machine and took a trip back to my childhood. Well, it wasn’t exactly a time machine but rather the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The acclaimed film brought me back to the earliest years that I can remember when every day I would watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS. I’m the oldest of three children, and my youngest brother is 10 years younger than I am, so Mister Rogers was a fixture in my home until well into my teenage years. Mister Rogers not only felt like a neighbor. He felt like a member of the family. This year’s film was released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the program during our climate of great discord and acrimony in our country. The film reintroduces us to Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, and highlights his example of decency that is needed today more than ever. 

The film’s title evokes one of Mister Rogers’ signature songs with which he began every program. (It’s a beautiful day… Won’t you please…) On every show he looked directly into the camera. It was as if he made eye contact with each viewer. We were his “television neighbors.” 

He invited us into his home and talked with us about feelings and everyday worries. He also addressed important issues of the day such as racial integration, divorce and even political assassination in honest, accessible ways that respected each child as a person. Mister Rogers’ response to national disasters reverberates for me every time we experience a hurricane, horrific violence or other tragedies.  “When I was a boy,” Mister Rogers said, “and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”

Fred Rogers was an ordained minister. While his program was not religious in nature, the underlying theme is that every human being is created in the divine image and that each person is special. He ended every program saying, “You always make each day a special day, by just your being you. There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” 

“I like you just the way you are.” That teaching may seem out of place on Yom Kippur. After all, isn’t today all about change? We tend to focus on how we screwed up rather than how good we are. Furthermore, most of us recognize Yom Kippur as a solemn day when we contemplate our fragility and mortality. We recall our departed loved ones in Yizkor, and we confess our sins in fear of the consequences if we don’t.  The positive psychology of Mr. Rogers might seem out of place. However, I believe the teaching of Fred Rogers is the essence of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is a joyous day. Yom Kippur affirms and celebrates life and cleanses us. When we confess “Ashamnu,” “We have sinned,” it is a hopeful reminder that we can renew ourselves. 

Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, took it a step further.  “A person should also be joyous concerning the good he or she has done. It follows that just as there is a great benefit to self-improvement through confessing one’s sins, so is there great benefit to confessing one’s good deeds” (Rabbi Kook’s Commentary to Mishnah Ma’aser Sheni 5:10). Yes, Rav Kook says, pound your chests and say “Ashamnu,” we have sinned. But also don’t forget to say to yourself, “I like you just the way you are.”

Rav Kook was the Mister Rogers of his time. For him, reminding ourselves of our good deeds builds self-confidence to venture forward to improve ourselves, the Jewish people and the world.

Inspired by Rav Kook, Rabbi Avi Weiss recently composed a prayer that affirms life through noting our positive actions. It supplements the Ashamnu confessional that we say throughout the day to confess the things that we have done wrong. This version of the vidui confessional highlights the things we have done right.

אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִִִּבַּרְנוּ  יֹפִי

We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.

We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically,

We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,

We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,

We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,

We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel,

We have been merciful, we have given full effort,

תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּוּ we have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.

The traditional Ashamnu has its place, but we also need Ahavnu. Voices from our tradition call on us not to be stuck in our mistakes but to emphasize and celebrate our true ability and potential. Fred Rogers lived and taught Ahavnu. His teaching, “I like you just the way you are,” guided us to see the good in ourselves and to recognize that we can help others in ways that others helped us. In his final years, Mister Rogers ended a commencement addresses with the following: 

“Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work has had at least one person—and often many—who believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without many different investments from others. In fact, from the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.” 

I would like to invite us to do what Mister Rogers asked graduating college students to do: On this important and holy day, let’s pause to think of special people in our lives. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. They may be relatives, friends or chance acquaintances. No matter where they are, deep down we know they’ve wanted what was best for us. They’ve cared about us, even through their imperfections, and they encouraged us to be true to the best within us. Let’s take a few moments of silence to think about those people who have cared about us all along the way.

Whomever we’ve been thinking about, imagine how grateful they must be that during our silent times we remember how important they are to us. “It’s not the honors, prizes and fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls,” Mister Rogers said. “It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our lives from which we make our choices is very good stuff.” 

As we remember the lives of our departed and the lessons that they taught us, let us honor their memory by taking note of our own goodness that we strive to increase. With all of our faults, let us recognize our inner decency. Let us have the courage to say to our inner selves, “I like you just the way you are.” Let each one of us remember Ahavnu—we have loved, we can love, we WILL love; and through our combined efforts, may God grant each of us the strength to build this world with love. 

Don’t wait for God’s permission to repair the world

11 Sep

(Delivered at Congregation Gan Eden, 9/10/18)

On a Friday evening in February, my family sat down for our weekly Shabbat dinner. This is an important time for us to decompress from the hustle and bustle of the week and to reconnect to one another. On this Friday night, our teenage sons had an urgent matter to discuss. They asked if they could go to the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC, the following month. They knew they had a busy schedule with a lot of school commitments. They knew that we don’t have an unlimited travel budget. They were expecting us to say no. How surprised they were when we not only said ‘yes,’ but that we would go with them. 

We all shared a sense of urgency to go to Washington. We were outraged by the latest senseless school shooting on February 14 at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which a former student shot and killed 17 innocent people, 14 of them students, 3 staff members. We were pained by the bloodshed that took place virtually in our backyard. We were horrified when our boys heard personal accounts from camp and youth group friends who attend Stoneman Douglas. All of these factors contributed to our decision to travel as a family to Washington for the March for Our Lives, but these were not the decisive reasons. What clinched it for us was the passion, poise and persistence of the Stoneman Douglas students who would not let this story fade from the news cycle. Our sons saw in them peers who cared about changing the status quo and stood up to take action themselves. 

Our family drove to Washington. We joined up with United Synagogue Youth, which fused participation in the Saturday march with traditional Shabbat observance.  The feeling of being part of nearly one million people singing together, shouting together, demanding change together was overwhelmingly powerful. My children were transformed by the experience, and it’s because their peers from Stoneman Douglas did not sit and wait to be told to take action. They did not listen to cynics who said nothing can be done. They grabbed the mantle of leadership, and inspired millions across the country. 

Our Torah presents different models of leadership. For one, there’s Noah. He seems to be a nice guy, unlike his violent neighbors. When God commands Noah to build an Ark, Noah silently obeys. When God tells Noah about the flood to destroy all life on earth except those allowed onto the Ark, Noah does not protest. He just saves himself and his family. To his credit, Noah did not commit the crimes of his neighbors. But neither did he step up to bear witness to their crimes and to improve society. 

The rabbis of our tradition criticize Noah for his apathy. Consider this statement in the Midrash about the end of the flood when it was time to leave the Ark: 

The Midrash says: “Noah said to himself, Since I only entered the ark with permission (from God), shall I leave without permission? The Holy One said to him: Are you looking for permission? In that case, I give you permission, as it says, ‘Then God said to Noah, Come out of the ark.’”

The Midrash then adds: “Said Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, If I had been there I would have smashed down [the doors of] the ark and taken myself out of it.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks  sums up this midrash as saying: when it comes to repair of the world, don’t wait for God’s permission. Just get to work. 

The Torah presents leaders such as Abraham and Moses as contrasts to Noah. While Noah waited passively for God’s instructions, Abraham cried out to God to do justice and spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the innocent. Moses protected the Israelites when God threatened to destroy them over the Golden Calf incident. The Parkland students resemble Abraham and Moses much more than Noah. They are not waiting for God’s permission to repair the world, and neither should we. 

The students have courageously called out the complacency of lawmakers. They endure constant harassment from gun lobby sympathizers and continue to make their case in public. When told that nothing could be done about the scourge of guns in our society, they got modest legislation passed in the Florida legislature and Congress. And when elected officials would not do more, they pressured corporations to sever ties with the NRA. Over the summer they went on a nation-wide bus tour that included visits to gun ravaged cities like Chicago where they joined forces with their peers to protest gun violence. And they are just getting started. The Parkland students are continuing to build their movement to reduce gun violence through sensible laws such as universal background checks, closing gun show loopholes and banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons.  

The Parkland kids are the same age as my children, and yet they are my heroes. One of the most prominent Parkland students, Matt Deitsch, happens to be Jewish. He graduated from Stoneman Douglas in the spring and is the Chief Strategist for the March for Our Lives organization. In preparation for these High Holidays he contributed this short piece, titled “What If?” to the Jewels of Elul blog. He writes:

What if you grew up in the small suburb of Parkland, Florida, as a normal kid, Hebrew teacher, lifeguard and youth group president with aspirations of being a filmmaker?

What if one-day, loss and risk turned your life upside down? Mine did.

What if we did not have to bury our heroes? …What if we came together to confront the problems of today? What if our elected officials stood up for the most vulnerable people?

… What if we did not just ask these questions, but also found answers? …

What if we could all have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless of zip code, religion, color or status?

Matt Deitsch and his friends are not waiting for God or anyone else to give them permission to repair the world. Like Abraham, they jumped in and took charge. As we enter the new year of 5779, I pray that we will be inspired by the Parkland students. Let us not wait for God’s permission to bring more hesed, loving kindness, into our world. May we create a world without bloodshed and violence. May we break down the doors of our Arks to stamp out injustice. May we build a world of love. Amen

#MeToo in the New Year

11 Sep

(Delivered at Congregation Gan Eden 9/11/18)

At a Hollywood awards show a few months ago the host, comedian John Mulaney, made the following observation: “Last year, everyone who is famous died. This year, everyone who is famous wishes they were dead.” The quip drew nervous laughter because of the many powerful and famous men who had recently been publicly confronted with credible allegations of sexual harassment. 

Indeed, our world has changed since the intrepid investigative reporting of The New Yorker and The New York Times nearly a year ago exposed the sexual harassment committed over many years against many women by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Soon, there was an avalanche of revelations of other male abusers. The outrage in society towards these men crescendoed into #MeToo and #Timesup! and our world has forever changed. 

Egregious abuse was happening in public view for years, yet many of us didn’t see it. Or we chose not to see it. Or we saw it and dismissed it as “boys being boys.” In many cases it was an “open secret” that men like Harvey Weinstein used their power inappropriately. Back in 2013 actor Seth MacFarlane announced the 5 Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actress and quipped: “Congratulations. You five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” Those present politely laughed. It took another four years for us to realize it was no laughing matter. More than fifty women have leveled accusations against Weinstein in the published accounts. Many lived in fear that Weinstein would ruin their careers if they said anything. Some did say something and indeed experienced retaliation and crippling of their aspirations in Hollywood.

We have learned a lot in the past year from many women, as well as a number of men, who have lived in fear of sexual predators who held power over them not only because of the action itself, but because society looked the other way. Then, all of a sudden, society’s eyes were opened. The breaking of the Weinstein story opened the floodgates for the exposure of sexual harassment as an epidemic touching virtually every industry. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, commenting on the ravages of the Vietnam War said , “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” I think this teaching applies to all of us who allowed the pervasiveness of abuse in our society for decades.  

Fortunately, thanks to the brave victims who have come forward to tell their stories, a loud and determined consensus emerged that we could no longer tolerate the status quo. Time’s up for sexual harassment. This consensus has enabled more victims to tell their stories.

Since the #MeToo movement, I’ve been thinking a lot about violence that takes place in plain sight. Therefore, I am struck when I confront today’s Torah reading, the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, to find a story about violence and abuse of power that takes place out in the open—in plain sight. 

If the story happened today, I can imagine a newspaper headline: “Abraham assaults son in act of ritual violence.” Another headline might scream, “Abraham blames God for ordering sacrifice.” What a scandal this would be! We glean from the story the traumatic effect on the main characters. For instance, Isaac and Abraham are never in each other’s presence again, and God and Abraham never speak to each other again.

Often overlooked, though, are two additional characters in the story. Two nameless servants accompany Abraham and Isaac. They are referred to in Hebrew as n’arav, Abraham’s youths, commonly translated as ‘lads.’  They are told to stay behind as Abraham and Isaac ascend Mt. Moriah. The lads do not see the actual binding, we can presume, but we can ask, ‘What were they thinking at that time?’ When Abraham comes down the mountain alone and returns to the lads, we do not hear them asking, “Where’s Isaac?” They silently go on their way. They knew something was wrong but they seemingly said nothing. On one level, who can blame them? Abraham was their boss. Who were they to say anything? On the other hand, they were the only witnesses. They had an obligation to share. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous wrote at the dawn of the #MeToo movement, “It’s time we tell the stories that weren’t recorded. The stories we were too scared to share, those that weren’t deemed important enough to be remembered. It’s about reading between the lines, and listening.” 

The central mitzvah of Rosh HaShanah is lishmoa kol shofar, to listen to the sound of the shofar. The shofar is our alarm. It is meant to wake us up to be more attentive to the world around us. The sounds of the shofar should goad us to listen, really listen, to those who are in distress and to take action as individuals and as a society to make sure such abuse is not tolerated.  

Until the #MeToo movement, too many of us were like the silent lads who should have known bad stuff had to be going on, but we chose to remain silent or to look the other way. That said, I would like to offer an alternative understanding of the two lads. If we read between the lines in the Binding of Isaac story, we find another hidden story. It’s that the anonymous servants did speak up. Consider how we know the events of the Akeidah. The servants bore witness to it. It was they who wrote it down to make sure future generations would not forget. Perhaps it was precisely for our #MeToo moment of public awakening and reckoning that they told their story. 

In this new year, we must continue to create safe spaces for the vulnerable in our midst who feel great pain. We must listen to their stories. We must bear witness. We must not be indifferent. When we open our hearts to those in pain and work to create a safe society for all, we bring hesed, loving-kindness, into the world. Olam hesed yibaneh. We must build a world of love. 

Amen.