Leave no one behind

Years ago, I started going up to the Great Lakes Naval Base to lead Friday night services for the recruits. They came from all backgrounds; some came because they were Jewish. Some came because it was something to do on a Friday night with a little bit of freedom outside bootcamp. Some came because their buddies were coming. Didn’t matter.

It was the week of Parashat Noah. We did a quick, but deep “dive” (get it?) into the story, and here’s what stuck with me. They had no problem with the instructions Noah gave. They honored the “chain of command”, i.e. God to Noah. Their biggest problem was leaving people behind, outside the ark, the ones they couldn’t save. That was the hardest thing to follow through on. That went against what they were trained to do.

What’s the hardest thing for you to come to terms with in this story?

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Chaos. Utter chaos.

There’s a phrase that has been echoing through my mind, as we start the Torah again this Shabbat.

Chaos. Tohu v’vohu.

I have questions. Why would God create chaos and then form it into order? Why not just create the order? And if the chaos was there before God started creating…well, where did it come from? Who created the chaos?

I’m not sure it matters. Confronted by chaos? Make order out of it. Is it your closet? Is it your garage? Is it our society? In my case, I say yes to the first two. As for teh society? I can’t do that by myself.

Vote.

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We always need a Plan B

Here it is, the last Shabbat before the Creation of the World. It’s been a while since we were on our weekly Torah check-in, so before we head for celestial tohu v’vohu (chaos) to match the tohu v’vohu here on earth, a couple of verses from this week’s reading caught my eye.

In Devarim (Deuteronomy) 14:22, we read about setting aside tithes, grains, wine, oil, herds, etc and where we are supposed to offer them. But in v 24 we read, “Should the distance be too great for you, should you be unable to transport them, because the place where Adonai your Gd has chosen…is far from you, you may convert them into money”, take the cash to the same place, and spend it. Buy something new, have a good meal with good wine, and enjoy your vacation.

I love how Torah gets real. I love how Torah presents a plan B, when you just live too far away to shlep all that stuff, you can contribute to the community in other ways. Supporting our institutions, our businesses, ourselves in fact, is also good.

There’s another verse that acknowledges the real world: Deut 15:11. In this section, we read about the 7th year (shmita) and the remission of debts. But the Torah mentions one “what if” and another dose of reality. We read of the precautions against taking advantage of the needy, because although we read, “There shall be no needy among you” (v. 4) we also read, “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you [to] open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” (v 11) How do we reconcile what seems to be a contradiction?

Once again, Torah gives us a Plan B in light of the reality of the world. We can have “no needy” as a goal, but the reality is there will always be needy, and so we have to know how to treat the vulnerable in our midst, to establish the just and righteous society that is our ultimate work on earth, to make order from the chaos.

We need a lot of Plan Bs today…C, D, E. Torah reminds us that we will encounter obstacles to the ideal, but our alternative plans have to keep our ideal society in mind.

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Tisha B’Av and John Lewis

I’ve been thinking a lot about two things that converged today in my mind, in the odd coincidences of life. One, of course was Tisha B’Av, the traditional national day of mourning for the Jewish community, and the other, the funeral of Representative and Civil Rights leader John Lewis, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Over the years, I have had a mixed relationship to Tisha B’Av. In short,  I didn’t know anything about this day on the calendar when I was young. Then, as a young adult, I started fasting on the day, seeking connection and relevance. Then after a while longer, I stopped. Something wasn’t resonating with me. Here I was supposed to be sad that the Temple was destroyed and the priestly class as the religious community leaders ended. But I wasn’t sorry the Temple was gone. It was just that event that gave rise to the rabbinic tradition, the deep, profound, and intentional interpretation and applications of text to life, and  the way I saw it, this was what allowed me to live the kind of Jewish life I wanted. The creativity that ensued was, to me, a boon. I never felt disadvantaged to be in the “Diaspora”. I don’t feel like I’m in exile. As time went on,  I began to recognize that Tisha B’Av could be seen in the context of the huge communal shift that the destruction caused, that Tisha B’Av was showing us where the cracks in our lives and society are. We see what needs to be fixed by seeing what is broken, we can mourn the pain that disruption caused, and still celebrate where it led us.

So, how does this mourning connect me to John Lewis’ funeral this afternoon? Like few before him, but like those giants he marched and worked with, Lewis shone a light on what was broken and cracked in our country, and it was his persistent work to keep the light shining bright and hard.  I watched the service today and kept thinking that the huge communal shift that Lewis tried to effect has been re-invigorated this summer, in response to the violence rained upon Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others.  As Lewis said, Emmett Till was his George Floyd – a tragedy that galvanized the demands for change. The destruction of the Temple was a tragedy that led to a complete overhaul of our religious communal life, and now our country is in the middle of a huge communal shift as many of us shine that hard light on our personal and national past. We mourn for those who gave their lives for the injustice they suffered and are speaking out in their names. We mourned the loss of the Temple then and now, not even knowing how deeply it would impact our community. But look where it got us. I think it was an improvement. Just like the upheaval that forever changed the Jewish community, our whole nation is being upended by the events of this summer’s protests and demands for an end to systemic racism.

As we move toward the month of Elul and the hard work of personal teshuvah, we can also move toward the hard work of restoring our country to the just and righteous society it can be.

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Death in the time of the virus

We keep hearing and reading that these are challenging times, and decisions are being made that can affect life and death. That is all true.  But this week was challenging in a far more personal and direct way: death came to two people whom I loved, completely unrelated to the virus attacking our world.

One was a friend, a dear friend, a clergy member from a different faith community. Her daughter called me early in the week and told me her mom had died quite suddenly from a brain aneurysm. I had lunch with her two weeks ago, as she was about to start an interim pulpit position, just like so many rabbis I know. I will miss her terribly. I was somewhat familiar with the traditions of her faith, but given the restrictions on gatherings, there would only be a cremation and a memorial at some later date.  I thanked the daughter for calling me, hung up the phone, and wept.

The second was the father of my oldest friend; we had met when I was eleven. He had been ill and frail for a long time, so when my friend called to tell me he had finally died, none were surprised.  I told her I would be at the graveside ceremony. I hung up on that call and wept, too; I was to bury my “second Daddy” the next day, and it was hard to bear. My own father, such a different man and father, died over thirty years ago, but his funeral and shiva (mourning week) were fresh and painful to revisit. Truly, I knew how my friend felt.

The next day was cold. It was rainy. And it was awful. No hugs, no arms around each other or shoulders to lean on, the way I had been held at my dad’s funeral. The cantor chanted the old melodies, spoke warmly of the deceased for he had been a long-time member of the congregation. There were slight smiles, a couple of chuckles, and tears, just as there should be in remembering a long life. But there was also an awkward distance as we each stood under our umbrellas, as if their canopies would keep us the recommended distance apart.  No shiva, no trays to unwrap at the mourners’ home, no coffee to start up, no looking for the foil and serving plates.

For both families, there was no time to spend telling stories, Instead, I have called and texted all week to check in. The distraction of a house full of people, though exhausting, serves a purpose. The comfort of the ancient wisdom of condolence calls, the days of people streaming in, sitting, sharing, eating, praying, being with others….all were lost.

Others will die in the coming months, from the virus and other, more expected causes. Some will just be numbers on the TV screen and some will be close to our hearts. But no mourner will benefit from the consolation of family and friends. It’s as if we have to put our grief on hold until a more convenient time. We will all get through these times of isolation. There were celebrations that were supposed to happen, and they have been postponed. But we can’t postpone death, nor the mourning that comes with it. There’s a big hole where the community comfort should be. It’s hard to mourn. It’s harder still to do it alone.

May their memories be for a blessing, and may we gather soon to remember.

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Chanukah – 8th night

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least twenty five years, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  In the interest of changing times, community, and adult children, I have edited these slightly.

chanukah 8

Tonight, the gift of OPTIMISM

This includes both a sense of perspective and a sense of joy.  Life will be hard enough, so relish the good moments.  Our other gifts will help you stay strong in the face of adversity.  This one will help you savor its absence.  Focus on hope, equanimity, and a positive outlook, instead of on worry and pessimism.  And when you feel despair or pessimism, take that as a sign of what work needs to be done next.  There is always work to be done in this world.  Be a joyous presence.  Count your blessings. Have fun.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

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Chanukah – 6th candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least twenty five years, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  I have begun re-writing them somewhat, after all these years, with adult children and a changing community and world.

chanukah 6

Tonight, the gift of FREEDOM

Freedom came within boundaries that stretched as you got older, and it seemed to have come in painfully measured doses. We always intended you to know and experience freedom within guidelines you can keep using as you’ve matured.  You have become an adult and out in the world of nearly unlimited independence,  so we hope you will know how to use this freedom, and how to be true to your own standards. Freedom didn’t mean just doing what you wanted.  We also hope you realize we gave you this gift  so you would be able to recognize lack of freedom in others, and work so that they too will be free.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

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Chanukah – 7th night

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least twenty five years, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  I have begun re-writing them somewhat, after all these years, with adult children and a changing community and world.

It’s also Shabbat, and we are blessed with  more lights of joy and peace to light the night.

 

chanukah-7

Tonight, the gift of SECURITY

Well, at least as much security as we can give you.  Physical security is no longer guaranteed in this world; violence is random and raging.  But we send you into the world with a deep personal security of who you are.  Your true, long range security has to come from within yourselves, from being and becoming trustworthy.  Meanwhile, we will do all we can to give you the foundation of composure, of knowing without question that you are able to do good things in the world.  We are proud of your innate abilities, your goodness, and your good sense, and of your willingness to try.  You do not need to compete, or to follow the crowd to gain self-esteem, because you already have, from us, and from within yourself, the seeds of true confidence.  Just nurture them.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

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Chanukah – 5th candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least twenty five years, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  In the interest of changing times, community, and adult children, I have edited these slightly.

Chanukah-Night5Tonight, the gift of HOME

As in, you can always come home.  As in, you can bring your friends home.  As in, this is your home. You may have moved away, and call another place “home”, but we hope this is “home home”.  You have a place in the world, with us, a shelter, both physical and psychological.  It looks just like any other home, maybe more chaotic than some, but it is your home, your safe place, where you started and where you can always come back to.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

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Chanukah – 4th candle

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least twenty five years, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  I have begun re-writing them somewhat, after all these years, with adult children and a changing community and world.

chanukah 4

 

Tonight, the gift of JUDAISM

We give you Judaism, your own personal connection  with the Source and Spirit of the World.  This great gift includes spiritual strength, heritage, a strong moral code, and an incredible gift for survival.  Judaism gives you inspiration, scholarship, protection, compassion, a way to live, and a people to belong to, wherever life takes you. We give you this gift, hoping like us, you will unwrap it throughout your life,  and find new joys and questions, new ideas and old friends.  Sometimes this gift gets complicated, and sometimes downright confusing.  But we hope we are showing you how it may change in practice, not presence; how it continues to be a source within your soul, and how it can be a familiar, yet layered journey as you build your life, your love, your family.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah

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