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We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers: Remembering Tree of Life one year later

26 Oct

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 2, 2018. The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Tree of Life shooting and aftermath.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

How do you measure, measure a year?…

Do you recognize these words? They are the opening lyrics of “Seasons of Love” from the hit musical “Rent.” 

They come to mind as I reflect on the last year, or, to be precise, the last 364 days. On October 27, exactly 52 weeks ago today at this very minute many of us were in services just like we are now. We were celebrating Shabbat in community. Then cell phones started buzzing. Word spread quickly that there was a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. I was crestfallen when I learned it was Tree of Life, a historic Conservative synagogue in Squirrel Hill. I knew people from there, including their Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Berkun and his son Rabbi Jonathan Berkun who leads Aventura-Turnberry Jewish Center, a few miles south of here. I had visited Squirrel Hill several times before and was familiar with its charming streets, ethnic and racial diversity and cohesive Jewish community. A terrorist attack against Jews in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—how could it happen here?

The next day we learned the names of the eleven Jewish brothers and sisters who were murdered. 

  • Joyce Fienberg, 75
  • Richard Gottfried, 65
  • Rose Mallinger, 97
  • Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
  • Cecil Rosenthal, 59
  • David Rosenthal, 54
  • Bernice Simon, 84
  • Sylvan Simon, 86
  • Daniel Stein, 71
  • Melvin Wax, 88
  • Irving Younger, 69

They were mostly older folks. They were the ones who opened up the building, made sure there was a minyan at the start of services, got kiddush ready, stood at the door to great everyone else as they arrived.

As that week wore on, the funerals started, hundreds upon hundreds of people in attendance at each one. The Rosenthal brothers, Cecil and David, were the greeters who wished everyone Shabbat Shalom upon entry. They were both developmentally disabled and known and beloved throughout the community. Their sister had worked in the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the entire Steelers team was in attendance at their funeral.

Then, on Friday, November 2, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published its remarkable headline featuring the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew typeface. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the shooting and aftermath, and it donated its prize money to the synagogue.

My reaction to the Tree of Life shooting was a combination of intense grief, utter despair, paralyzing fear and deep anger. It was already unacceptable that shootings were regularly taking place in schools, nightclubs, movie theaters, concerts, churches. Our own community was just a few months removed from the Parkland massacre, and we knew all too well about the devastation of a mass shooting. But in nearly four centuries of Jews on the North American continent, never was there a terror attack on Jews like we saw in Pittsburgh. Tragically, the shooter in Pittsburgh created a template that  was followed exactly six months later on the last day of Passover when another shooter attacked the Chabad of Poway, CA, and murdered Lori Gilbert Kaye after she jumped in front of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein and saved his life. And the sick ideology of the Pittsburgh and Poway shooters was exported back to Germany where earlier this month on Yom Kippur gunmen attempted an attack on a synagogue in Halle.

Looking back a year later at the Tree of Life shooting, I remember feeling the loss personally. I have never lived in Pittsburgh, but suddenly I felt my own home was attacked. At the community vigil that took place here in this B’nai Torah sanctuary on October 30 at which at least 1500 people crammed into this space, Rabbi Englander called to the bimah everyone who had ever lived in Pittsburgh. What a powerful moment it was when several dozen people came forward! (I’d like to ask for a show of hands today of everyone who has lived in or has roots in Pittsburgh.)

As we reflect on a year since the Tree of Life shooting, an attack on our extended family, I wonder aloud if it is possible to channel our grief and anger into something other than despair. I believe it is not only possible but  obligatory. Before I tell you about how I confronted my own despair, I’d like to reflect on this morning’s Torah portion, which lays the groundwork for the entire book of Genesis, which, in turn, provides us with some guidance we need at this critical moment. 

At the heart of Sefer Bereshit, the book of Genesis, we find one central question. In the Torah’s origin story of the human race, we learn about the very first murder: Cain kills his brother Abel. Not only does he kill him, but he denies responsibility. When God asks him אי הבל אחיך–where is your brother Abel?–Cain answersלא ידעתי– —”I don’t know.” Then Cain adds his infamous question,—השומר אחי אנוכי “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

Cain’s contempt for his brother and his brutal violence set a tone for the rest of Genesis; however, it’s his question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” that forms the bedrock for the rest of the book. Time and again in the text we encounter terrible sibling rivalry. Brothers are not their brothers’ keepers. True, we don’t see another fratricide, but we come close. Esau almost kills Jacob. Joseph is almost killed by his brothers. Even sisters Rachel and Leah have a painful rivalry, though not physically violent. As we once again work our way through Bereshit over the next couple of months, we will find one chapter will unfold into another, generation will follow generation, and repeatedly, our ancestors are not their brothers’ or sisters’ keepers. 

Spoiler alert: eventually the tide turns. Suddenly, when we least expect it, there is a change. Judah breaks the spell when he stands up before Joseph and protects his endangered brother Benjamin. Joseph, in a position to avenge the brutality of his brothers from years before backs off. He reconciles with them in the first recorded act of forgiveness in human history.  Genesis begins with a question: השומר אחי אנוכי—Is humanity capable of being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers? After generations of struggle, by the end of the Genesis, the answer is, finally, yes. 

Thousands of years after the Torah was written, we ask ourselves once again, “Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?” The answer still must be a resounding, “Yes.” In the immediate aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting, the people of Pittsburgh answered yes.

CBS’s “60 Minutes” produced a moving segment last week on the first anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting. Lesley Stahl interviewed Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life who drew a sharp contrast between the aftermath of the shooting and Kristallnacht in Germany 80 years earlier. In Kristallnacht, police and firefighters either did nothing or actively participated in the mob violence. In Pittsburgh, first responders immediately put their lives on the line to save Jews. When the shooting stopped, the entire community came together. Christians, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics, all enveloped the Jewish community in a communal hug of solidarity. 

While I drew solace from the unity of the Pittsburgh community and the outpouring of support from all segments here in Boca Raton, I still felt a great sense of personal despair and helplessness.  A few weeks later, I was blessed to receive a call to action—an opportunity for me to go to Pittsburgh on a chaplaincy mission to bear witness to stories first hand and to provide a measure of comfort to the community. Specifically, I was one of several rabbis called on by the Rabbinical Assembly and the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh to provide support on the ground in Squirrel Hill. 

Rabbi Ed Bernstein in front of Tree of Life Synagogue, Dec. 14, 2018

The Tree of Life building actually housed three separate congregations under one roof. Tree of Life, which is Conservative, New Light, also Conservative, and Dor Hadash, Reconstructionist.

Three out of the eleven murdered were from New Light: Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Dr. Richard Gottfried. They were instrumental in leading and running every aspect of their congregation. They typically were the first ones in the door on Shabbat and they all regularly read Torah and haftarah, and led davening every Shabbat. Mel, Dan and Rich were all past presidents of the congregation. Rich was the gabbai, the one who called people up to the Torah and rolled the scroll to the correct position. Since these three were so active in running services, their sudden absence left a terrible void for the congregation. The Rabbinical Assembly and the Pittsburgh Federation coordinated to bring in a different Conservative rabbi each week over three months to support New Light and their rabbi, Jonathan Perlman. I visited the community over a Shabbat in December.

My main ritual task was to read Torah. My other task was just to be present. I heard graphic accounts from Rabbi Perlman about the scene of the carnage. I sat at Shabbat meals on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and heard congregants still processing the events, all while stubbornly and joyously celebrating Shabbat together. I met Sharon Stein, widow of Dan Stein, whose grief is unimaginable but who still has come to shul every week since. Among the most moving moments for me was during the mi sheberach prayer for healing when the gabbai paused to read the names of the six police officers who were injured in the line of duty when they ran into the the synagogue: Officers Daniel Mead, Michael Smidga, Anthony Burke, Timothy Matson, John Persin, Tyler Pashel. New Light could have just closed up, but they have carried on and continue to bring the light of Jewish tradition into the world.

New York York Times columnist Bari Weiss, a Pittsburgh native, celebrated her bat mitzvah at Tree of Life and was so personally shaken by the shooting she wrote a book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” Among her many wise suggestions on how Jews can respond to anti-Jewish hostility from various segments of society is for all of us  to “lean in” to Judaism, “to practice a Judaism of affirmation, not a Judaism of defensiveness.” Similarly, Deborah Lipstadt wrote in the Forward this week that rather than react to antisemitism only with “oy,” we need to respond with joy—the joy of being Jewish, joy we actively create ourselves. 

Beth Kisseleff, wife of New Light’s Rabbi Perlman, published a column last month in the JTA about the meaning of entering a Jewish new year for her community and affirming the joy of being Jewish:

Beth writes: “People have changed over the course of the year. Some have made and kept commitments to attend synagogue more regularly. Some of our new haftarah chanters have not used the skill since bar mitzvah, if ever, but are committed to reading every few weeks in honor of our three devoted haftarah readers at New Light — Dan Stein, Rich Gottfried and Mel Wax — who are no longer able to chant the prophetic words. There are those who did not have much interest in the spiritual side of Judaism who now attend any classes we hold. People who have always wanted to learn Hebrew have been studying it for the first time.”

The New Light Congregation inspires me because in the face of devastating loss, they are leaning in to Judaism and they, together with Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and the broader Pittsburgh Jewish community continue to seek out the joy of Judaism. 

Since last October 27, the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill did not give up. They resolved to strengthen the bonds of their community and to celebrate Jewishness. They have strengthened their Jewish community through modeling our most sacred values including their firm affirmation that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Their response to violence and hatred is joy and love. 

It is easy to fall into despair in the face of horrendous violence in our world. And yet, the Torah reminds us that Cain does not have the last word. The arc of Genesis answers Cain’s question that we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Time and again we answer the call of our tradition to affirm life and attempt to bring lovingkindness into the world. 

About five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes ago the world as we knew it was shattered. But the song “Seasons of Love” ends by urging us: 

“Remember the love

Measure in love

Measure, measure your life in love

Seasons of love

Seasons of love”

A traditional Jewish way of expressing this sentiment is found in the Psalms: Olam Hesed Yibaneh—the world will be built through love. On this solemn anniversary, let us honor the memory of our brothers and sisters in Pittsburgh with our resounding pledge to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and to build the world with love. 

In your Shabbat leaflets, please find the song “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” by Rabbi Menachem Creditor. Let us join Cantor Fishman in singing this prayer, and may the words enter our hearts. 

Olam Chesed Yibaneh—I Will Build This World From Love

Lyrics and music by Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Olam Chesed Yibaneh… yai dai dai—4x

I will build this world from love… yai dai dai 

And you must build this world from love… yai dai dai 

And if we build this world from love… yai dai dai 

Then God will build this world from love… yai dai dai

 

I delivered this sermon on October 26, 2019, at B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton. My thanks to Rabbis David Steinhardt and David Englander for their kind invitation for me to speak and to Cantor Magda Fishman who led the congregation in singing “Olam Chesed Yibaneh.”

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There! (And other ways to confront mortality)

9 Oct

Political activist Ady Barkan is fighting for social justice even as he fights ALS.

I will never forget those eyebrows. “Larry” (a pseudonym) had a piercing gaze and communicated by moving his eyebrows. Larry was a patient in the hospice program in which I serve as a chaplain. Larry was an advertising executive and a writer. He was a loving husband, father, son, and brother. And Larry had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a terminal neurological illness. By the time I met Larry for the first time in his home in 2017 he already could not speak with with his natural voice. He used the Tobii Dyanvox device that allowed him to type words or select phrases by looking at a computer screen. A synthesized voice would then “say” the words from a speaker. He sat in a special wheelchair and required 24-hour care. Over the next two years I visited Larry many times and found we had much in common. He was a Jewish man about my age. Like me, he grew up in the Chicago area. We discovered we had several mutual friends. His arms and legs were emaciated and paralyzed, but those eyes and eyebrows! They were full of life. 

Larry fought to engage in this world and experience life to the fullest extent that he could. Over the next two years he published a children’s book as well as several articles in Jewish newspapers chronicling his experience with ALS. When I visited him, we talked about his recent works. He told me he had once played guitar in a rock band, something he missed terribly, and we listened to his favorite classic hard rock hits. We listened to Jewish songs. We prayed. We sat together in silence. Larry died in May, 2019. I felt the loss personally and was very sad. I lost not only a patient but a friend. 

Around the same time that I got to know Larry I became aware of another young Jewish man with ALS. His name is Ady Barkan, a 35-year-old lawyer and political activist. Ady graduated from Columbia University and Yale Law School. He clerked for a Federal Judge. His wife Rachael is a professor of English and they have a three-year-old son Carl and a baby on the way. Ady, who holds dual American and Israeli citizenship, was on last year’s Forward 50 list of the fifty most important Jews in America. He is a galvanizing political organizer. 

Ady was diagnosed with ALS in 2016. He has since lost use of his legs, arms and back muscles. Recordings of his public speaking over the last few years document the decline of his voice until he had to start using the computerized synthetic voice that he, like Larry, operates by typing words with his eyes. Last month he had a tracheostomy so that he could breathe with a ventilator. He now requires 24-hour care.  Comparing photos and video of Ady now with those at the start of his illness reveal substantial weight loss and physical decline. 

And yet, Ady still channels his razor-sharp mind, keen media savvy and iron-clad will to call for justice, particularly for universal health-care. Ady recently published a memoir, Eyes to the Wind: A Memoir of Love and Death, Hope and Resistance. He articulates his vision for many political issues; however, at the heart of his book is his confrontation with his mortality. 

While much of Ady’s progressive advocacy work resonates for me personally, my interest on Yom Kippur is to reflect on Ady’s courage in confronting his illness. He makes poignant expression of his existential crisis as his illness progressed and he developed one symptom, then another, then another. Ady describes the emotional trauma of the illness and the psychological and spiritual guidance that he sought. He started going to therapy and received guidance in meditation from different spiritual traditions. He writes that the wisdom he received for dealing with pain and tragedy is not to escape or ignore these difficulties. Rather, the goal is to become comfortable and accepting of them. Citing another author, Ady writes, “When the ground is pulled out from under your feet—when you find yourself in free fall—it is a mistake to flail wildly in search of a handhold; instead, you can find peace by accepting your velocity and the fundamental instability, unpredictability, and impermanence of our world. Everything falls apart. That is the nature of things. Enlightenment requires us to accept impermanence rather than rage against it.” Ady reflects further: “The key to enjoying the time that I had left would be to accept life’s impermanence, accept the tragedy, and find comfort even when there was no ground under my feet.”

The psycho-spiritual guidance that Ady received—to be in the present—posed for him a great dilemma. After all, he is a political activist. Everything he does is about not accepting the status quo and demanding change. Ady writes: “Activism and politics were precisely about not accepting the tragedies of the world, about insisting that we could reduce pain and prolong life. Social justice meant creating a stable floor beneath our feet and then putting a safety net under that, to catch us if it suddenly vanished: universal health insurance, affordable housing, unemployment benefits (or, even better, a guaranteed good job) . . . Being part of a progressive political movement was precisely about fighting back and building toward a better future. Accepting was not part of our vocabulary.” Ady’s memoir grows out of this basic tension between accepting the present and fighting for a better future. 

Sylvia Boorstein pithily encapsulates Ady’s tension in the title of her book, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. Boorstein is a Brooklyn-born Jewish writer and speaker who is credited with popularizing Buddhist wisdom in the West. In a light-hearted way, a cartoon expresses the existential tension of Ady Barkan through Boorstein’s clever turn of phrase. 

Boorstein comments: “What makes the cartoon funny is that that old guy IS doing something. He is fuming! He is mad! He is just holding it in rather than shouting it out, and clearly, it cannot be good for him. I think the phrase needs notation, like music, to let the reader know where the accent goes: Don’t JUST do something (i.e. impulsively respond) — Think It Over!…[I]t is valuable to be still for long enough to figure out what would be the most helpful thing to do.”

The wisdom expressed by Sylvia Boorstein and discovered by Ady Barkan has deep roots in Jewish tradition. In particular, Un’tane Tokef, a central prayer of the High Holidays, forces us to confront the tension between “sitting there” and acknowledging our mortality, on the one hand, and “doing something” to ease suffering of the other. 

Un’tane Tokef  lays bare our fragility and mortality. The poet writes: 

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן. כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת, מִי בְקִצּוֹ, וּמִי לֹא בְּקִצּוֹ, מִי בָאֵשׁ וּמִי בַמַּיִם,

On Rosh Hashanah the judgments will be written down And on Yom Kippur they will be sealed: How many will pass on and how many will be created, Who will live and who will die, Who at their end and who not at their end, Who by fire and who by water…

And on it goes through multiple scenarios of how we might meet our demise. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous  (Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef (Prayers of Awe)). Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.) comments on the harrowing starkness of this poem. She writes: “Many of us struggle to overcome the terror of death through avoidance and repression…But our tradition compels us to recognize that afar anachnu, “All we are is dust” (Psalm 103:14)—the end is inescapable.”  Rabbi Brous reflects further: “The centrality of Un’taneh Tokef in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reflects the Rabbis’ understanding that an awareness of our deep vulnerability is the very essence of the religious and spiritual life. ‘Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant.’ There’s simply no time for denial or escapism.”

In other words, we’re called to “sit there” and reflect on our limitations as humans. 

However, once we accept our mortality, we are then able to look forward. As the prayer reaches its climax, it calls on us to recommit ourselves to living a certain kind of life, or to “just do something”:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.

Rabbi Brous teaches:  “Our tradition, in all its wisdom, demands that we obliterate the false protective shelter and, knowing that each moment might be our last, fight for a life of meaning today. The High Holy Days force us to shift from denial of death to purposeful engagement with life.” Rabbi Brous notes, “We can’t dictate our fate. We can’t hide from death. But there are three things that we can do to bring meaning into the radical uncertainty of our lives” (Brous, p. 143)

First is T’shuvah (repentance): Rabbi Brous writes: “You don’t have to be a static, stagnant being, dwelling perpetually in the mistakes of years past. You can choose to make t’shuvah, affirming that life is dynamic and people change. Find the courage to ask for forgiveness from the people you have hurt. Find the strength to forgive those who have hurt you and the audacity to forgive yourself. Open your heart and embrace the people around you—most importantly those you most often take for granted. Hug your kids (and others dear to you).”

Second is T’fillah (prayer): Rabbi Brous teaches, “You don’t have to be alone. You are part of a story that is bigger than you, where the critical currency is God and the soul, not money, power, or celebrity. Let the majesty of nature distract you. Open your heart to pain. Let the world take your breath away. Connect to something beyond the physical, the tangible, the utterly graspable. Allow yourself not to understand and yet to appreciate anyway. Live in mystery.” 

Finally, there’s Tz’dakah (charity):  Rabbi Brous says, “Stop digging yourself further and further into your own dramas, as if the privileges of freedom and prosperity come with no responsibility to others. Open your eyes and give a damn! Let your heart break over illness, poverty, loss, and violence. Affirm the power of love! Bring healing and comfort! Stake your claim in the world!”

Rabbi Brous concludes: ”The challenge of the High Holy Days is to confront the radically unpredictable trajectory of our lives and live as if every single day truly might be our last.”

During the High Holidays we not only confront our mortality during the Un’tane Tokef prayer, but also during Yizkor, the memorial prayers we say for our departed loved ones. Yizkor is a profound experience of “Don’t JUST do something, sit there!”  Technically, we stand during the prayer, but we are called upon to remember our departed. Through deep reflection, we take time out to engage with and validate the pain of their absence. We draw inspiration from the positive influence they had on us and pledge to ourselves to do our best to carry on their legacy. For some of us, we might also engage in the pain of broken relationships we had with our departed while they were alive and forgive ourselves for any repair that did not come about. 

Ady Barkan, in a recently released series of online video interviews with several leading presidential candidates, describes to each of the candidates his own reflections on his legacy in making a difference in our world. He asks each candidate to reflect on the legacy he or she hopes to leave by the time they exit  public life. In these tear-jerker conversations, Ady draws the candidates off of their talking points to reflect deeply on the meaning of life. He has them literally “sit there” in meaningful contemplation.  This series of public reflections on mortality and legacy is by itself a tremendous gift that Ady has given us all.  

Ady refers in his book to the “Serenity Prayer” by the great theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr, a friend and teacher of both Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Serenity Prayer reflects Un’tane Tokef and asks for the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be, and the wisdom to know the difference. Ady embodies the spirit of those words, as did my late friend Larry. 

During Yizkor, I plan to think about Larry and how in the grips of a devastating disease, he left behind a legacy of loving life. He stubbornly affirmed life to his last day through his books, his articles, his smiles and his eyebrow gestures. I will also reflect on how Ady Barkan, suffering from the same disease, is modeling a legacy that when we confront and accept our limited number of days, we increase our efforts to improve the world. 

As we enter Yizkor, don’t JUST do something, sit there. Let us reflect on the legacy of our loved ones. Let us reflect on the legacy we seek to leave for ourselves, and let us return to purposeful action. 

In Search of Holy CHUTZpah

8 Oct

A typical dictionary definition of “chutzpah” might not provide its full array of meanings.

What exactly is chutzpah? Well, to answer that, I refer you the most recent season of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” in which he dedicates an entire episode to defining chutzpah. Actually, he dedicates the episode to defining the American pronunciation “CHUTZpah” and the Israeli pronunciation chutzPAH. CHUTZpah and chutzPAH are worlds apart and our problem is that we confuse the two. 

CHUTZpah generally implies audacity, creativity and grit. Chutzpah has deep Jewish roots. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein notes in his book The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life That Matters, “[T]he Talmud recognized that in every generation, there are certain human beings prepared to stand in the face of any power, even God, to champion life, demand justice, and appeal for compassion. These special souls are said to display ‘chutzpah even in the face of heaven—chutzpah afilu kelapei shemaya’”(See Sanhedrin 105a).

But then there’s chutzPAH. The Israeli-accented version is edgy and bitter. It refers to someone who is unencumbered by shame and has no care about anyone’s life or feelings. “Eizeh chutzpah!” “What chutzPAH! What shameless nerve!” is what an Israeli might say when one driver brazenly cuts off another on a highway. Of course, there is the well known American definition of chutzpah courtesy of Leo Rosten in which a man murders his parents and then at his trial for murder stands before the judge and pleads for mercy because he is now an orphan. Gladwell doesn’t mention that classic scene. It’s too confusing. The shameless murderer who is often cited to explain CHUTZpah is actually guilty of chutzPAH.

Throughout Jewish history our people have lionized CHUTZpah, creative audacity. We reject chutzPAH, shameless nerve and disregard for fellow human beings. In ancient Israel, the prophet played a special role in boldly promoting chutzpah in the face of rampant chutzPAH. The prophet did not wield armies like the monarch, nor control a treasury like the Temple priests. The prophet’s job description and power source were complex. Part oracle, part healer, part messenger, the prophet was endowed with a divine intimacy, able to convey God’s will and sometimes even talk back to God on behalf of the people. 

The prophets who lived during the monarchy drew upon the great prophetic models from the Torah.  Abraham sets the standard when he argues with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah for the sake of the righteous.  Later, Moses stands in the breach and saves the Israelites when God threatened to destroy them for the sin of the Golden Calf. Abraham had the chutzpah to stand up for the righteous; Moses went a step further and protected even the sinners from wanton destruction. And let’s not forget that the very name of our nation, Yisrael, means “wrestle with God,” as Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed.  

The prophet was the arbiter of the covenant between God and Israel. While Abraham and Moses challenge God’s commitment to the covenant, usually it’s the people who need reminders of the terms of the covenant. The prophet’s job is to call out corruption and lawlessness in the priesthood and monarchy because injustice is a breach of the covenant. 

In his 1962 book The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that the prophet is an individual willing to say “no” to his society, “condemning its habits and assumptions . . . [and] complacency.” The prophet reminds Israel that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The prophet stands on principle and refuses to be neutral in the face of evil even if it means, as is often the case, living a lonely and deeply unpopular life. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove sums up Heschel saying, “Essentially, the prophet is the voice of dissent.” (From Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, “Something to Say,” 9/7/19) Or, we might say, the voice of chutzpah. Dissent is CHUTZpah, bold action. And against what exactly is the prophet dissenting? ChutzPAH! The Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning is the perfect example of courageous chutzpah calling out the chutzPAH of wanton injustice.

In Isaiah chapter 58, the prophet, channeling the word of God says: 

4. Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.

5.? הֲכָזֶה יִֽהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast, a day when ADONAI is favorable?

In other words, the people’s hypocritical behavior in fasting and beating their chests while at the same time abusing their neighbors is utter chutzPAH. 

The prophet continues: 

6. הֲל֣וֹא זֶה֮ צ֣וֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ֒ No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. 

7 הֲלוֹא פָרס לָֽרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home, when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh. 

It’s not that fasting and ritual behavior are bad. Rather the prophet insists that our ritual behavior be aligned with our ethical actions. When ritual behavior is out of sync with our ethical actions—when we fast and beat our chests on Yom Kippur but we ignore starvation, oppression and injustice in our midst, that is chutzPAH. That is the core message of the Biblical prophets.

The formal time of the prophets may have ended with the close of the Hebrew Bible more than 2000 years ago; however, the prophetic voice continued to be a vital part of the Jewish psyche. Prophetic chutzpah is not located in any one person, class, or generation. It is an essential attribute, part of the life-force of the Jewish people that has cajoled us and sustained us for generations. Rabbi Heschel himself did not just study the prophetic voice; he embodied it. He fought on behalf of civil rights and protested the Vietnam War. He taught the world through his words and deeds how to take a moral stand and refuse to let that era’s abuses become normalized. Heschel wrote: “Dissent is indigenous to Judaism.” (“Dissent,” in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, p. 106). 

The struggle of CHUTZpah as dissent and creative audacity to prevail over chutzPAH, shameless disregard for decency and societal norms, is never easy. ChutzPAH is often quite vicious. I felt the force of its toxicity several weeks ago when the American President pressured the Israeli Prime Minister to prevent two US Congresswomen from entering Israel after which the President tweeted that any Jew who supports the Democratic party is disloyal. This rhetoric was blasphemous and divisive, not to mention utterly false. The incident epitomized chutzPAH. 

ChutzPAH barked at CHUTZpah and accused CHUTZpah of disloyalty. But what if we, as heirs to a long tradition of holy CHUTZpah, leaned in to that disloyalty? What if we reminded the world and ourselves that we have a proud history of disloyalty exemplified by the prophets? I worry sometimes that American Jews have lost our historic Jewish chutzpah of courageous audacity while destructive chutzPAH rages around us. 

Furthermore, let us not forget that America has its own proud tradition of dissent and chutzpah that has cried out against tyranny and oppression. It was rebellion that led to the birth of our nation. Dissenters demanded the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, rights for Native Americans, for Latinos, for African Americans, reproductive rights, and gay rights. Martin Luther King said about his era: “History will . . . record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” In other words, when we are silent, we lack holy CHUTZpah, and the tyranny of shameless chutzPAH prevails. 

As Jews and as Americans, it is neither unpatriotic nor disloyal to voice dissent regarding our government or the government of Israel. Whether it concerns our family, our country, or the State of Israel, to voice dissent from a place of loving CHUTZpah is arguably the most Jewish, most loyal, most Zionist, and most important thing an American Jew can do.

In closing, Elie Wiesel taught “To be human is to doubt. The Hebrew word for ‘question,’ shelah, contains the word for ‘God,’ El. God is in the question.” (Ariel Burger, Witness, p. 100).  God is in the question. God is in the dissent. God is in our holy CHUTZpah. 

On this Yom Kippur, I invite us to seek atonement for any times in the last year when we were silent—when we neglected to muster the appropriate bold CHUTZpah to counter the domineering chutzPAH in our midst. On this Yom Kippur, let us lean in to the voice of the prophet. Let us challenge ourselves to hear the prophetic voice of our tradition and to be inspired to find our own prophetic voice. Let us be inspired to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, and may we be blessed with abundant holy CHUTZpah.

 

(With appreciation for Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove’s sermon “Something to Say,” 9/7/19, from which some key content in this sermon is adapted.)

Little More Than Angels: Reflections on Pittsburgh and Poway

1 Oct

Little Less Than Angels

Last October 27, I was sitting in Shabbat services at the synagogue when my phone buzzed. We were reading Parashat Vayera, the Torah portion from which the readings of Rosh Hashanah are taken. We had just finished hearing the Binding of Isaac when I felt the vibration in my pocket. My practice for most of my career was not to carry my phone to synagogue on Shabbat. In recent years I have felt safer taking my cell phone with me; however, I keep it in my pocket as opposed to the holster on my belt buckle. I have it if I need it, but it’s slightly less accessible, a reminder to myself that Shabbat is different.

I couldn’t ignore that buzz. Nor could I ignore that other people in services were checking their phones at that moment. I grabbed my phone and saw headlines from the New York Times and CNN that there was a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. At first the name of the synagogue was not reported. It really did not matter. However, I was particularly crestfallen when I learned it was Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill. I knew people from there, including their Rabbi Emeritus and his son who is a rabbi in Miami. I had visited Squirrel Hill several times before and was familiar with its charming streets, ethnic and racial diversity and cohesive Jewish community. A terrorist attack against Jews in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—how could it happen here?

The next day we learned the names of the eleven Jewish brothers and sisters who were murdered. They were mostly older folks. They were the ones who opened up the building, made sure there was a minyan at the start of services, got kiddush ready, stood at the door to great everyone else as they arrived.

The funerals started, hundreds upon hundreds of people in attendance at each one. The Rosenthal brothers, Cecil and David, were the greeters who wished everyone Shabbat Shalom upon entry. They were both developmentally disabled and known and beloved throughout the community. Their sister works in the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the entire Steelers team was in attendance at their funeral. Steelers linemen were among the pall bearers.

Then, on Friday, November 2, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published its remarkable headline featuring the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew typeface.

David Shribman, the newspaper’s Executive Editor, wrote that day:

“When you conclude there are no words to express a community’s feelings, then maybe you are thinking in the wrong language.

That’s what prompted me to consider whether an excerpt from a 10th century prayer might be the appropriate gesture — of respect, of condolence — for a 21st century audience mourning its dead, whether family, friend, congregant, neighbor or, simply, Pittsburgher.

“The result was a front-page headline spread across the top of the Friday Post-Gazette…that featured the opening of the Jewish mourners’ prayer, known by heart by regular Shabbat observers in our community’s many synagogues, bringing our readers to the heart of the incident that has marked our community, and displaying the heart of this community, including of course the Post-Gazette community.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the shooting and aftermath, and it donated its prize money to the synagogue.

My reaction to the Tree of Life shooting was a combination of intense grief, utter despair, paralyzing fear and deep anger. It was already unacceptable that shootings were regularly taking place in schools, nightclubs (like Pulse), movie theaters, concerts, churches. But in nearly four centuries of Jews on the North American continent, never was there a terror attack on Jews like we saw in Pittsburgh. It would be inaccurate to say this “hit close to home.” This was home!

The same was true exactly six months later when the Chabad of Poway, CA, was attacked on the last day of Passover. Either of these incidents—Pittsburgh and Poway—could easily have been us coming together in our community for Shabbat and holiday services.

All of my complex feelings were intensified by the toxic brew of easy access in this country to firearms, particularly assault weapons, acquired by emboldened racists and antisemites who utilize the Internet to amplify their hatred and incitement to violence.

Today, once again, we read the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. This complex, traumatic story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac can be interpreted many different ways from multiple angles. Today, our first return to the Akeidah since last October 27, an interpretation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks to me.

Rabbi Heschel describes how he studied the Akeidah with his heder rebbe in Poland:

Here is the experience of a child of seven who was reading in school the chapter which tells of the sacrifice of Isaac on the way to Mt. Moriah with his father. “He lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat even faster; it actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife. And now my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard: ‘Abraham, lay not your hand upon the lad, for now I know that you fear God.’ And here I broke out in tears and wept aloud. ‘Why are you crying?’ asked the rabbi. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed.’ And I said to him, still weeping, ‘But, Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late?’ The rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late.” A key lesson of Heschel is that an angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and blood, may be. (Mahzor Lev Shalem, p. 104.)

For Pittsburgh, we were too late. For Poway, Parkland and Pulse we were too late as well. We were too late for El Paso and Dayton, and we were too late for Newtown and too late for Charleston.

We are certainly not angels. However, the Psalmist reminds us (8:6) that humans are only a little less than angels. In fact, in some ways humans are better than angels because we have the ability to make ourselves and our society better.

The Jewish community of Squirrel Hill is also made up of angels. Since that dark day, they have stubbornly affirmed life. In the depths of my despair over the Tree of Life shooting, I was blessed to receive a call to action—an opportunity for me to go to Pittsburgh on a chaplaincy mission to provide a measure of comfort for the community.

The Tree of Life building actually housed three separate congregations under one roof. Tree of Life, which is Conservative, New Light, also Conservative, and Dor Hadash, Reconstructionist.

Three out of the eleven murdered were from New Light: Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Dr. Richard Gottfried. They were instrumental in leading and running every aspect of the congregation. They were the first ones in the door on the Sabbath and they all regularly read the haftarah the prophetic sections of Bible chanted after the Torah portion each Saturday. All were past presidents of the congregation. Mel, Dan and Rich frequently led the prayers and Rich was the gabbai, the one to call people up to the Torah and roll the unpunctuated text to the correct position. Since these three were so active in running things, their sudden absence left a terrible void for the congregation. The Rabbinical Assembly and the Pittsburgh Federation coordinated to bring in a different Conservative rabbi each week over three months to support New Light and their rabbi, Jonathan Perlman. I visited the community over a Shabbat in December.

My main ritual task was to read Torah. My other task was just to be present. I heard graphic accounts from Rabbi Perlman about the scene of the carnage revealed in the FBI investigation. I sat at Shabbat meals on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and heard congregants still processing the events, all while celebrating Shabbat together. I met Sharon Stein, wife of Dan Stein, whose grief is unimaginable but who still has come to shul every week since. Among the most moving moments for me was during the mi sheberach prayer for healing when the gabbai paused to read the names of the the six police officers who were injured in the line of duty when they ran into the the synagogue: Officers Daniel Mead, Michael Smidga, Anthony Burke, Timothy Matson, John Persin, Tyler Pashel. New Light could have just closed up, but they have carried on and continue to bring the light of Jewish tradition into the world.

Beth Kisseleff, a writer and wife of Rabbi Perlman, wrote a column few days ago in the JTA about the meaning of this Rosh HaShanah for her community:

“When we hear the shofar, if we hear it as a wail and scream, perhaps we can change our lives and make what comes after Rosh Hashanah irrevocably different from what comes before.

I have seen it happen in my own community. People have changed over the course of the year. Some have made and kept commitments to attend synagogue more regularly. Some of our new haftarah chanters have not used the skill since bar mitzvah, if ever, but are committed to reading every few weeks in honor of our three devoted haftarah readers at New Light — Dan Stein, Rich Gottfried and Mel Wax — who are no longer able to chant the prophetic words. There are those who did not have much interest in the spiritual side of Judaism who now attend any classes we hold. People who have always wanted to learn Hebrew have been studying it for the first time.”

In the aftermath of October 27, the people of Squirrel Hill did not give up. They resolved to strengthen the bonds of their community and to celebrate Jewishness.

The Poway community also faced their violent trauma with resolve. The rabbi of the Chabad, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein wrote a New York Times op-ed two days after the shooting. He lost his right index finger but could have suffered much worse. He wrote, “Today should have been my funeral.” He pays tribute to his congregant Lori Gilbert Kaye, of blessed memory, who jumped in front of the rabbi to take a bullet intended for him and lost her life. He writes: “I do not know why God spared my life. I do not know why I had to witness scenes of a pogrom in San Diego County like the ones my grandparents experienced in Poland. I don’t know why a part of my body was taken away from me. I don’t know why I had to see my good friend, a woman who embodied the Jewish value of hesed (kindness), hunted in her house of worship.

Rabbi Goldstein continues: “I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure; a reminder that my ancestors gave their lives so that I can live in freedom in America; and a reminder, most of all, to never, ever, not ever be afraid to be Jewish.”

Finally, Rabbi Goldstein writes, “From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue….”

For Pittsburgh and Poway, we were too late. But the survivors of those attacks taught us that going forward, we will affirm life. In the absence of angels from the sky, we all must strive to act like angels. We must intervene to prevent violence and bloodshed. We must demand sensible laws to get weapons of war off the streets and enact comprehensive background checks.  We must counter antisemitism, racism and all forms of bigotry by modeling love and kindness and strengthening bonds with our neighbors.

As we enter the new year of 5780, I pray that we will be inspired by our brothers and sisters around the country who survived horrific bloodshed and have responded by affirming life.  Let us not wait for angels. Let us never be too late again. Let’s BE angels and bring loving kindness, justice and peace into our world.

 

Strangers in a Strange New Place

30 Sep

The exodus from Anatevka, Fiddler on the Roof film, 1971

Strangers in a Strange New Place

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home… And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word… Tradition!” (Sing “Tradition!”) 

Fiddler on the Roof is my favorite musical. It is so overtly Jewish and at the same time universal, so much so that when the show debuted in Japan, the Japanese could not understand how the show was successful anywhere else because they thought only they dealt with the tension between tradition and modernity. A recently released documentary film “Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles” explores the legacy of the musical and how it has thrived for generations across cultures throughout the world.

In exploring the universal appeal of Fiddler, the film shows that not only does every culture face the tension between tradition and modernity, but that the ultimate upheaval of leaving a familiar home for the strange unknown is powerfully resonant. At the end of the show, the Jewish villagers of Anatevka are refugees. They are forced to leave behind everything they know and find a new home. Here’s the central part of the song: (sing) 

What do we leave? Nothing much.

Only Anatevka.

Anatevka, Anatevka.

Underfed, overworked Anatevka.

Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?

Anatevka, Anatevka.

Intimate, obstinate Anatevka,

Where I know everyone I meet.

Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,

Searching for an old familiar face

From Anatevka.

I belong in Anatevka,

Tumble-down, work-a-day Anatevka.

Dear little village, little town of mine

Songwriters: Jerry Bock / Sheldon Harnick

Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,

Searching for an old familiar face.

These words send chills up my spine. I think about my ancestors who fled Russian pogroms in the late 1800s/early 1900s under similar circumstances. They were refugees. And yet, as horrible as they had it, they were lucky. America not only saved their lives but embraced them and allowed them to contribute to the dream and promise of America. 

A generation later, however, Jews trying to escape Nazi Europe were not as fortunate. 

This year marked the 80th anniversary of the Voyage of the St. Louis, popularly known as the “Voyage of the Damned” ,” thanks to the acclaimed book and film by that title.

In May 1939, 937 passengers, mostly Jewish refugees, left Hamburg, Germany, en route to Cuba. Most of them planned eventually to emigrate to the United States and were on the waiting list for admission. All passengers held landing certificates permitting them entry to Cuba, but when the St. Louis reached the port of Havana, the President of Cuba refused to honor the documents.

After the ship left the Havana harbor, it sailed so close to the Florida coast that the passengers could see the lights of Miami. The captain appealed for help, but in vain. US Coast Guard ships patrolled the waters to make sure that no one jumped to freedom and did not allow the ship to dock in the US. The St. Louis turned back to Europe. Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and France admitted the passengers. But within months, the Germans overran western Europe. It’s estimated that 254 passengers were murdered by the Nazis. 

President Roosevelt is generally praised for his leadership and resolve in leading our nation through World War II and the defeat of the Nazis. However, he had blind spots. Antisemitic members of his administration prevailed upon him to close the borders to Jews when they could have been saved before the War. Later, Roosevelt could have bombed the railroad tracks to Auschwitz and other concentration camps but declined in the name of preserving the larger military objective to defeat Hitler. History condemns Roosevelt for not acting more assertively to save Jewish lives. His inaction not only cost the lives of untold numbers of Jews who might have been saved, it harmed the image of America. 

Eighty years ago, when America banished Jewish refugees from our shores, this nation banished an aspect of its ethos, its very being. What America did 80 years ago is happening again today.

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh HaShanah also teaches that when we banish the other we banish part of ourselves. Let’s meet once again the main characters. We have Abraham and Sarah. God has promised them that they will produce a great nation, yet they are quite elderly and have no children. Sarah makes available to Abraham her handmaiden Hagar so that at least Abraham could sire offspring. Their son Yishmael is the product of this union. A few years later, miraculously, Sarah conceives and bears a child who is named Yitzchak. 

As Isaac grows up with his half-brother Ishmael, something bothers Sarah. We don’t know exactly what. All we are told is that Sarah saw the son of Hagar metzahek – playing or laughing or doing something related to Yizhak, whose name is derived from the same root, lezahek, which means to laugh.  Rabbinic commentaries explain this verb mezahek in deeply negative terms suggesting Ishamel was involved in sexual abuse, shooting arrows at Isaac, killing or idolatry. These commentaries seek to justify the eventual expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael into the desert and it’s easier to do so if Ishmael is criminal or dangerous. 

Rabbi Jill Borodin, a Conservative rabbinic colleague of mine, writes in a recent commentary a much more basic interpretation: the word mezahek suggests Ishmael being Yitzhaq-like, or copying Isaac.

Sarah feels threatened by Ishmael doing something too familiar to her son, something which might indicate him as equal.  Sarah’s solution is to demand גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ   —Expel this slave woman and her son!

Her omission of their names is itself dehumanizing. Note also the verb, garesh. It’s usage in the Torah refers to a permanent expulsion. It’s a deportation. In banishing them, Sarah proclaims that the son of that slave woman will not inherit his father’s resources alongside his half-brother Isaac.   Another familiar trope – there are not enough resources to go around.  Sarah will ensure Ishmael does not take from Isaac what she believes is HIS inheritance, what belongs to HIM and him alone.

Sarah is a fascinating and ultimately tragic character. After the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, we never hear Sarah’s voice again. Yes, we do learn of her death after the Binding of Isaac, the reading for the second day of Rosh HaShanah. The Midrash imagines Sarah learning about the near sacrifice of her son and dying in utter shock. However, as an active character in the narrative, Sarah effectively dies when she banishes Hagar and Ishmael. In banishing them, Sarah also banishes herself. 

We become who we are because of relationships with people who are similar to us or think similarly. We also become who we are because of relationships with people who are different from us or think differently. If we shut out everyone in our lives who are different from us or with whom we disagree and we are only with people exactly the same as we are, it becomes boring. Furthermore, Sara does something immoral—she banishes two people out into the desert whom she had dehumanized and made “other”—and she never recovers from it. 

The Torah is teaching us that when we engage in banishment , we cannot pretend it didn’t happen. Rather, we become the type of person who banishes people. When Sara becomes such a person, she disappears from the story. 

It’s worth noting that Hagar’s name has the same Hebrew spelling as the word ha-ger, the stranger, the foreigner, the Other. Hagar is also from Egypt. Rabbi Borodin suggests that Hagar’s banishment foreshadows the Israelite experience of being a foreigner—the Other—in Egypt.  The Torah frequently tells us to remember our experience of being gerim in Egypt and to learn from that experience how we must treat others:

וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

And you must lovingly treat the ger for you were gerim, you were strangers, in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19).

 

The beauty of the Torah is that we meet the heroes in their full humanity. We learn from them as much what not to do as what to do. When Sarah expels Hagar and Ishmael into the desert it is a model of what not to do. When the Torah later reminds us to love and respect the ger, the stranger, it is telling us not to be like Sarah. Our own dignity and self-worth depends on how we treat the stranger. The Torah teaches that when we cause harm to another human being created in the image of God we harm ourselves. When we banish someone from our midst, we banish an aspect of our very being. Sarah is never heard from again.

We, the Jewish people, are charged by the Torah with a sacred duty to protect the stranger. We have our own fraught history as strangers whether as slaves in Egypt or as refugees on a ship refused entry to America. 

This summer, I attempted in a small way to bear witness to the Hagar and Yishmael in our midst. In July, I drove to Homestead, near the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. I wanted to see as best as I could the atrocity of a child detention center in our own backyard where our government sends migrant children and raise my voice in protest. The Homestead Temporary Influx Care Facility (“Homestead”) is located on the grounds of Homestead Air Reserve Base. There, I saw at Homestead was a secure facility surrounded by an 8’ chain link fence with a privacy covering. Officially, children ages 13 – 17 were sent to Homestead directly from the border once Customs and Border Patrol processed them, yet children as young as eight years old have been held there. In early August, the site was effectively shut down and the children transferred to other facilities around the country. It is not clear yet if it will resume its previous function. Activists protesting Homestead demanded from the authorities a hurricane plan. None was produced but the relocation of the children out of a hurricane zone was seen as a minor victory. 

Still, the damage done to these children in the name of our country is shocking.  In the spring of 2018, the Administration’s family separation policy went into effect. After much public outcry the Administration officially said they would back off from the practice, even though it’s been found to have continued—some 900 children have been separated from their parents in the past year. Furthermore, this summer revealed the horrific conditions in the detention centers at our border and around the country, which are unsanitary, unsafe and cruel. We have read stories of families torn apart, of imprisoned children denied toothpaste, and soap and diapers and medical treatment. In these detention centers there are reports of physical abuse and sexual violence towards adults and children. We’ve heard about the deprivation of food and drink. Some held in detention centers have been forced to drink toilet water to stay alive. Most appalling of all at least seven children in these centers have died since last year. 

We have failed as a nation in allowing this crisis to occur. We should know—Jews in the 20th century had two different refugee experiences in this country. We had the Fiddler on the Roof experience as strangers in a strange new place that ultimately embraced us and helped this nation thrive. Then we had the Voyage of the Damned—America slammed the door in the face of  the next generation of Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives. Part of America died in 1939 when the St. Louis was sent away from these shores. Yet, our nation valiantly led the Allies to victory, liberated the concentration camps and welcomed refugees to this land. Our nation showed the capacity to learn from past mistakes. 

We as Jews have a special role to play in this country and around the world. We can—we must—draw from the well springs of our experience to restore the dignity of this nation. Our history of oppression has inspired many Jews to  pave the way for greater justice in the world for all. When we act like Sarah did and banish the stranger, we suffer. When we fulfill the Torah’s ideal to love the stranger and safeguard justice for all, the Jewish people thrive along with our neighbors. In this new year, let us rise to what this moment demands for us. Adonai oz l’amo yitein. Adonai yevarech et amo vashalom. May God grant us strength and bless us with peace. Amen. 

The Trauma of a Migrant Nation and What to Do About It

3 Aug

 

Homestead child detention center (photo by Miami Herald March 31, 2019, https://images.app.goo.gl/22KMEeYni7rPHZ7G6)

Note: When I attended services on Saturday morning August 3 and delivered this sermon, I was not yet aware of the breaking news that all children were transferred out of the Homestead detention center that morning, effectively closing the facility. This is a modest victory for the protests against the facility, though the ultimate fate of the children is unknown as of this writing. The larger crisis of the US Government’s inhumane detention of asylum seekers, including separation of children from families, still demands our attention.

Let me tell you a story. It is a story of a caravan of migrants. These are people who are oppressed, who are exhausted and who are deeply traumatized. Yet, despite their numerous hardships they still stubbornly dream of a better future. And so they embark on a very long walk to freedom. Along the way they endure all kinds of hardships: hunger, ravaging thirst, attacks from enemies. They are tormented by the elements. And finally, after the journey of a lifetime, they nearly reach their Promised Land. They’re so close. They can almost smell it. But there is one final obstacle for this bedraggled, beaten but not broken people. They have to pass through the border of another land in order to achieve their freedom. In a mix of hope and desperation, their leaders send ambassadors with a message for the leader and they make the case for entry. The response that they receive is no. They are not welcome The bedraggled people standing at that border is us. The oppression that our ancestors fled was slavery in Egypt. The inhospitable nation was Edom. What our ancestors sought was asylum. (Adapted from Rabbi Sharon Brous: https://ikar-la.org/sermons/our-nation-is-in-crisis-there-are-several-good-reasons-to-do-nothing-about-it/)

This account appeared in our Torah reading a few weeks ago in Parashat Hukkat (Num. 20: 14-21). We reflect on this narrative as a great injustice, a nation kicking us when we’re already down. The Torah repeatedly reminds us of the ethics in treatment of the stranger. No fewer than 36 times we are reminded that we were strangers, and our duty is to love the stranger. 

Yet, in this week’s Torah portion Matot-Masei, as we come to the end of Numbers, we find a major system breakdown. It comes at the very end of Moses’s career. He could have ridden off quietly into the sunset. Instead, Moses embarks on an act of genocidal vengeance, apparently at God’s direction (Num 31). The Israelites invade Midian as revenge for their seduction of the Israelites into a pagan orgy in Numbers 25. Small detail—there it was the Moabites, here it’s the Midianites.  The Israelite army kills every Midianite man. Then they return with captured women, children and booty. Does Moses grant them a ticker tape parade? Hardly. In fact, Moses chastises his soldiers that they were not brutal enough! He commands them to kill every non-virgin female and every male child among the captives. One more small detail: Moses lived in Midian for a period of his life and that his wife Tziporah and father-in-law Yitro are Midianites. 

Just try to grasp this. In one of his last official acts in public leadership, Moses calls for genocide against his own wife’s nation, the cousins of his children. This is maniacal. If it were up to me to edit the Torah and expunge problematic texts, Chapter 31 of Numbers would be the first to go. It makes me ill reading it. In reviewing my personal files from my twenty years in the rabbinate, I have never spoken about or taught this chapter. Somehow this year I could not avoid it any longer. 

The Rabbis of our tradition were not blind to the problematic nature of this text. According to Midrash Tanchuma, Moses offered terms of peace to Midian before the invasion. According to Bemidbar Rabbah, Moses was not deemed responsible because the zealot priest Pinchas led the campaign. Explanations like these would be laughable if they weren’t so horrific. And yet, the Rabbis of the Midrash deserve credit for their implicit questions about the text. We may not buy their answers, but they too are wondering along with us what to make of this text. 

In reflecting on this ugly chapter, my eyes opened to another reading that draws upon psychology. I’m not trained in psychology, and I wish to tread very carefully. However, let us consider the immense trauma that Moses witnessed and experienced in his life. He bore witness to slavery and the oppression of the taskmasters. Once out of Egypt, the people complained constantly. They were thirsty, they were hungry, they were scared. Throughout, Moses leads them and protects them. God was going to destroy them over the golden calf, but Moses intervenes. Moses endures a lot more including the spies episode and the attempted coup of his cousin Korah. Finally, in Numbers 20, Moses’s patience wears thin. He yells at the people when they complain of thirst, and he strikes the rock. As a result, God forbids him to enter the Promised Land. Later on, at Baal-Peor, the Israelites are drawn into a pagan orgy. Chapter 31 is evidence that Moses completely snapped in his outburst against Midian. I believe the accumulated trauma of his career took a tragic toll on him, and he unleashed a violent rage. The abused became the abuser.

Many Biblical heroes are presented in their full humanity, and we learn from them as much what not to do than what to do. Abraham, Moses and David all committed grievous acts of violence and other morally problematic acts. With Moses, we don’t need to justify the massacre, but we can at least try to understand how it came about. Only under these circumstances can I justify keeping this chapter in our sacred text. If I’m going to square Numbers 31 with the rest of the Torah, if I am to continue to respect Moses for his immense contribution as a founder of our nation, psychology may be a useful tool to at least begin to make sense out of something so utterly senseless. 

In looking at events of our day, I also struggle to make sense out of the senseless. Last week I went to Homestead to see as best as I could the atrocity of a child detention center in our own backyard where our government sends migrant children. The Homestead Temporary Influx Care Facility (“Homestead”) is located on the grounds of Homestead Air Reserve Base. Officially, children ages 13 – 17 are sent to Homestead directly from the border once Customs and Border Patrol processes them, yet children as young as eight years old have been held there. 

Homestead is a secure facility, surrounded by an 8’ chain link fence with a privacy covering. An organization called Witness Homestead (from whose website much of the following information was found) was formed by activists to monitor the facility. They set up a tent outside. They set up ladders across the street from the the facility. I climbed on one of these ladders and looked out over the fence into the grounds. Sometimes kids are seen on the grounds, but they otherwise spend the day under a tent then sleep in the barracks in a grey concrete building.  Entrance and exits are blocked by fences and gates are staffed by security personnel.  Children understand that they are not free to leave, and have been told that they will be arrested by local police and ICE and deported if they do.

The average stay at Homestead is 67 days, and some children are there for several months. Miami Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in one visit to the facility interviewed a child that had been there for 9 months, in violation of a court order limiting detainment to 20 days.  

Homestead is run by Comprehensive Health Services, Inc., a private, for-profit company.  Its parent company is Caliburn International.  Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is on the Board of Caliburn. Caliburn was recently awarded a no-bid extension of their contract to run Homestead through November for $341 million dollars.  The contract stipulates they will receive $775 per child per day. By comparison, the Palm Beach County School System spends about $50 per child per day. When it comes to child detention centers, our tax dollars are enriching corporate executives so that they may imprison children in squalid conditions.

A year ago, the Administration’s family separation policy went into effect. After much public outcry the Administration officially said they would back off from the practice, even though it’s been found to have continued—some 900 children have been separated from their parents in the past year. This summer we’ve seen increasing revelations of the horrific conditions in the detention centers at our border and around the country, which are unsanitary, unsafe and cruel. We have read stories of families torn apart, of imprisoned children denied toothpaste, and soap and diapers and medical treatment. In these detention centers there are reports of physical abuse and sexual violence towards adults and children. We’ve read about the deprivation of food and drink. Some held in detention centers have been forced to drink toilet water to stay alive. Most appalling of all at least seven children in these centers have died since last year. We have failed as a nation in allowing this crisis to occur.  

We as Jews cannot remain silent. We too are border people. We too are asylum seekers. We remember the St. Louis carrying nearly 1000 Jews fleeing the cauldron of Nazi Europe. The St. Louis came to the shores of the US but was denied entry. The boat turned back to Europe. Many of those Jews perished in the Shoah. We as Jews understand trauma. The Torah presents different two different models for dealing with national trauma. One is the approach of Numbers 31. Only our suffering matters, and nobody else suffered like we did. The rest of the world be damned. Moreover, our parents and grandparents came to this country legally, so why should I care about people coming here illegally? As much as I want to rip Numbers 31 out of the Torah, it’s there, and we need to listen to its echoes in our world today. We have some legitimate fears based on our communal history.  If we’re not careful, our fears can lead us to silence and indifference to the suffering in our midst. Numbers 31 is a cautionary tale. In contemporary Jewish life much of our communal thinking derived from communal trauma from the Shoah. This trauma affects so much of our psyche and may be misdirected. Some white Jews in America show indifference or outward hostility towards migrants and people of color. Some Israeli Jews show indifference or actively participate in the plight of their Palestinian neighbors. Given our history of communal trauma, it is one of the unspoken tragedies of our people that sometimes the abused become abusers. 

Then there’s the other strand of Torah, the prominent strand, with a very different approach to trauma. You shall love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Torah reminds us that every human being is created in the image of God. Our history of oppression has inspired many Jews to  pave the way for greater justice in the world for all, and when there is justice for all, the Jewish people benefit. Elie Wiesel, z”l, witness to and survivor of the Shoah, taught us to to reject the dehumanizing term “illegal alien.” He said, “No human being is illegal.”  Further, Wiesel taught, “The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.” We cannot afford to be indifferent in the face of oppression. Let us transcend our fears. Let us crawl out of our cocoon. Let us bear witness and cry out against the injustice in our midst. May God grant us strength to meet this challenge and to bring about justice and peace for all. 

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.