Suing the Nazis: A Rosh Hashanah Sermon

In my early twenties, I dreamt a version of the following dream many times:  I was a young adult in a Nazi concentration camp, and I was trying to save young children and babies from extermination. The dreams always ended before I found out whether I lived to tell the story or if I perished with the ones I was trying to rescue or even if I was able to save anyone. Of those nightmares, I only remember that I was there, in the scene of the terror, I was scared, and the story never had a conclusion.  To this day, my body remembers what it felt like to wake up from one of these dreams. With the passage of time and as I tell of these recurring nightmares, it’s not the details that I remember, it’s not the tangible fear that I felt, no, what remains for me so long after these dreams, is the very question on my mind, each time I woke from the dream.  I asked: “What if….” “What would I have done?” What would I have done had I lived in Nazi Germany around the year 1938, or in Eastern Europe around 1942? What would I have thought, felt or done if I were a child then? What would I have done as a Parent? A Grandparent?  An Adult? What would I have done if I was not a Jew? Would I have been among the righteous gentiles? Would I have kept quiet, not admitting or seeing anything wrong?  

The question, “What would I have done?” feels like it has always been with me, even before those dreams and from time to time throughout the years it has surfaced in my mind or shown up in conversation as the ‘what if game.’ Maybe you have played it too. To be honest, it never occurred to me that it was a question which required an answer. The question was never about the answer, actually.  In the last few years, however this question has resurfaced in a different light. While we are certainly and thank God, not living in Nazi Germany, the question, “What would I have done in the midst of virulent hatred and Anti-Semitism, is no longer hypothetical and it is the answer to this question that matters most now.   

On August 11th and 12th 2017 neo-Nazi’s, white supremacists, white nationalists and another other far-right extremists descended on Charlottesville, VA for a rally they called, “Unite the Right.”  The event was planned for months via the underground web.  The Jew-haters discussed how they would congregate in Charlottesville, who would bring the tiki torches, where they would congregate, who would bring the arms, they even went back and forth on how to sew a swastika on a flag and they even asked each other questions like how long would a gluten free sandwich last in a plastic sandwich bag the day of the rally.[1]  

At their siege on Charlottesville two years ago, there happened to be an interfaith church service going on and when participants in service heard the clamor outside the Church door, they barricaded themselves in, thinking they were literally going to die that day. They didn’t die, but Heather Heyer, a protester in the crowd did die that day after a neo-Nazi purposefully ran her down. Countless others were injured. A block away from the incident was a synagogue which moved all but one of their Torah Scrolls, to safety in member’s homes.  The one Torah scroll remaining was a Holocaust scroll they had on display. The irony is maddening. It was 2017 and a holocaust scroll is the only remaining scroll in a synagogue closed down because of the neo Nazis marching towards it!?! Although the marches began Friday night, members of the synagogue attended shabbat morning worship the next day.  Synagogue members arrived early to pray and realized they needed to end services early, the Neo-Nazis were coming towards them. They escaped out the synagogue back door.  The hired security guard at the shul soon after called the president of the congregation and said, “I’m scared for my life; they intend to burn down the synagogue, what do you want me to do?” The President responded, leave and find safety.  

The Extremists carrying lit tiki torches in the streets of Charlottesville, chanted: “Jews will not replace us.” “White Lives Matter.” “Blood and Soil.”  “Whose streets? Our Streets?” They chanted as some of them hurled lit tiki torches filled with fuel into the crowd, trying to light the counter-protesters on fire.  

Much of the details of what happened in Charlottesville 2017, I heard directly from two of the three powerful, smart, Jewish women who are suing the Nazis.  Robbie Kaplan, the litigator who won the Equal Marriage case in the Supreme Court who herself, heard of the rally on the news flew down to Charlottesville that very day to gather evidence and witnesses and within 48 hours garnered support for and the beginnings of a plan to sue the Nazi’s, getting at the heart of the leadership of these dangerous anti-Semites.  Robbie Kaplan, and Amy Spitalnick of Integrity First for America told their powerful and courageous story to the Central Conference of American Rabbis at our convention this past March.  They are suing the top leadership of White supremists, overt Nazis and an assortment of hate groups whose sole purpose is to rid the country of Jews. These groups of course don’t only hate Jews, they hate Blacks, gays, women, and Muslims, but their core, most fundamental hatred is towards the Jews who they believe are out to destroy democracy and freedom.[2]

The basis for the lawsuit is the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act stating that it is unlawful to engage in a conspiracy to commit violence based on racial animus.  The KKK Act was passed by a reconstructionist Congress to prevent Southern states in the South from re-enslaving the newly freed slaves. This law was used in the 1920s, and with the freedom riders and now, to sue the Nazi’s and take down their infrastructure.  The ultimate goal of the suit is to send the very infrastructure of these hate groups back into basements and to quiet them for good.  

The case is moving slowly, but at each step they have won, for justice is on our side.  It takes a tremendous of amount of money, security, time and people power to fuel this case. Ultimately the law team believes they will win in the courts, as they have thus far.  All of us need to not only be aware of this potentially landmark case and support it, but we need to acknowledge and talk about the fact of why this case is so vital to our democracy and freedom.  Violent extremism is on the rise and we have the power to stop it. 

  • Right-wing extremists killed more people in 2018 than any year since 1995-the year of the Oklahoma City bombing (ADL)
  • The majority of domestic terrorism, which by the way is not a federal crime, is motivated by White Supremacy. (FBI)
  • More often than not, each extremist attack is used as inspiration for the next, with far-right nationalists seeking to galvanize other extremists to action (IFA). Remember, the Pittsburg murderer, and the gunman who murdered 51 in a Christchurch, NZ mosque and the Poway killer, all used the same anti-sematic rhetoric.
  • The Anti-Defamation League found a nearly 60% increase in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017, the highest one-year jump since the 1970s.  
  • In last year—our Country had two mass shootings in synagogues, Pittsburgh massacre in 2018 and murder in Poway on Pesach, 2019. A 117-year-old shul in Duluth, MN was destroyed by arson just a few weeks ago. 
  • Illinois and Wisconsin have seen an increase this year in anti-Semitic vandalism and hate crimes (ADL) 

Anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head with a vengeance.  Social activist and community organizer, Eric L. Ward who I heard at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation of Conscious this past May, reminds us that Rosa Parks wasn’t just tired on one day, but that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired and was not going to take being sent to the back of the bus one more time. But it wasn’t her courageous act alone that sparked the Civil Rights movement. There were many other small and significant courageous acts that helped bring about a bus boycott and it was each and every one of the small acts of speaking truth to power that caused a movement to rise up in the name of justice and equality. It wasn’t Rosa alone who sparked the flame for civil rights, it was those who came before her, it was all of the folks who were sick and tired and who stepped up and said, “enough!” and it was those who took the mantle of the call for justice after her that allowed for civil rights to advance in this country.  

Mr. Eric Ward, who is African American, infiltrated the White Supremist movement and had much to teach the 2000 Reform Jews attending the RAC’s, Consultation on Conscience.  He said go us, “Anti-Semitism is on the rise and what we know is that anti-Semitism is a driver, its purpose is to seed fear not only in the Jewish community but other vulnerable communities as well. The danger of Anti-Semitism,” he goes on to say,  “is that it seeks to deny vulnerable communities like immigrants, African Americans and others of their agency. It denies that we have legitimate grievances in terms of racial and economic inequality.  Anti-Semitism doesn’t exist just on the right or on the left, it is in the air we breathe.” He concludes,  “Let’s be clear, hate groups don’t bring Anti-Semitism in our communities, they simply organize the Anti-Semitism that already exists. Anti-Semitism is a direct assault on democratic values and institutions.” 

The once hypothetical question, “What would I have done if I were living in Nazi Germany or in Eastern Europe?” emerges now loudly and clearly. I am reminded of the famous quote by Pastor Martin Niemoller who served the German Lutheran Church during the rise of Nazism.  In his time, as much of the public continued to look away from the anti-Semitism, and Niemoller came to the realization that his personal security in the face of increasing oppression was an illusion.  His quote is posted at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC: “First they came for the Communists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists And I did not speak out Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews And I did not speak out Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me And there was no one left To speak out for me.

What would I have done? Is no longer relevant. The only question to ask ourselves and our community now is, “What Will I Do?” 

There are not nice people on both sides.  We know that there are no two sides to hate. There is just hate and it kills.  And we are targets of baseless hatred.  I am not saying this to scare you or to be overly dramatic.  I think it is the truth and the statistics back this up.   

Anti-Semitism has been around for millennia and we are people who know how to live with courage, resiliency, determination and engage in civic duties that uphold our values of fixing this broken world and not to ‘stand idly by the blood of our brothers and sisters.” (Lev:19:16).  We are a people loyal to democracy and freedom. 

We are a people loyal to the democratic values of justice for all, of non-discrimination, of taking in the stranger, the widow, the orphan, of hesed, of love and kindness, of speaking up against injustice like our ancestor Queen Esther did when she heard of Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews.  We read in Esther Rabbah (8:6) “What is the meaning of ‘you keep silent?’ [The meaning of this is] if you are quiet and do not advocate for your people now, your destiny will be to be silenced for all eternity.  Why? Because you had the opportunity to speak out in order to do good in your lifetime and you did not.” 

We live in a democracy and we have the ability to be change agents towards love.  To ending the hate.  This moment in history demands action.  It demands that our actions speak louder than words.  It demands that we answer the question, “What will I do?”

What will we do in times of increasing Anti-Semitism and hate? 

We can confront. 

We can educate

We can support Integrity for America First, helping them fight extremists leaders and sue the Nazi’s. 

We can partner with interfaith organizations who also know that there are not two sides but there is only one and its love —we love and build up we don’t hate and tear down.  

You can travel with me to Israel in June to learn about and understand our past as we visit the sacred sites which offer hope and an understanding of what resiliency really is. We will visit the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, that we might be strengthened by the resilience of our people and be inspirired with fervent determination to never let such hatred happen again.  We will also see the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, reminding us that we are not alone and that there are people who are working with us and for us. 

We can our own Beth Am Committee against Anti-Semitism and Hate.  We have developed a more specific action plan which you will receive as a handout on your way out of the sanctuary this morning, to combating hate, including the plethora of online hateful rhetoric.  The action plan will also be posted on our facebook pages and weekly email update.

We read in Proverbs, Ner Adonai nishmat adam. “God’s lamp is the human spirit.” (20:27) which shines light on the soul, illuminating the dark places.  Each of us is a light with the capacity to illumine the dark places and the dark times.  Each of us is a light that can bring love and peace into this broken world.  Like the great Rabbi Jeochim Prinz in late 1930s Berlin who, when the Nazi’s intruded into his worship one Friday evening at the Berlin Reform Synagogue and marched down the aisle towards him, he stood tall, the lights of the Sabbath candles around him and said to the bearers of hate and darkness:  Go Home!  Go Home!  and That evening they did. Darkness came and left.  Light remained.   Rabbi Prinz eventually was asked to leave his home and he made it to the shores of this country.  He became outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement and an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.  Speaking right before Martin Luther King Jr’s famous address to the crowd, Rabbi Prinz said, “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.[3]

What will I do when faced with increasing hate?  Today we say to the forces who bring the darkness and disrupt our nation’s democratic values, who thrive upon hate,  Go home.  Go Home. We are not silent, and we speak up.  For bearers of light and love know that if we are silent the past repeats itself.  We have an action plan.  We will rid our community of the Jew-haters in our own state and neighborhoods, we will call out hate and not be afraid.  And we will support the strong Jewish women who have had to hire nearly full-time bodyguards and wear custom fitted bullet proof vests in order make it illegal to plan and carry through acts of hate in our country.  

The reoccurring dreams I once had have not come back.  My dreams have not scared me for decades and despite all that hate and violence out there, despite having to increase our synagogue security on every level, I know that hate will end one day and anti-Semitism will diminish allowing goodness and love to flourish.  I don’t believe we will fail.  There is too much at stake and we know it. 

May we in this new year, be fearless and speak out against hate.  May we be blessed with courage and fortitude, a sense of safety and ease.  May we live with love in our hearts and all around us. 

Ken Yihe Ratzon. 

May this be true.  


[1] Conversation with Robbie Solomon and Amy Spitalnik at the Conference of Central American Rabbi convention, Cincinnati March 2019

[2] To find out more about the case, see https://www.integrityfirstforamerica.org/newsroom/charlottesville-case-overview-legal-case

[3] http://www.joachimprinz.com/civilrights.htm

Posted in Anti Semitism, Congregation Beth Am, Hate, High Holidays, sermons, Shana Tova

Staycation

For my family, a “staycation” is code for many things. It’s code for, we can’t afford a vacation right now. It’s also code for, we will stay in the cold and snowy, damp and dark  Chicago winter instead of soaking in the warmth of the ocean and eating tacos at the condo in PV.  A staycation is code for we will all be home together. All. Home. Together. It’s a code which says to the three teenagers in the house there are no time restrictions on your phone because your parents to have to work.  It may even be a code for let’s go out at the spur of the moment and see a play or a movie, go for dinner, or take a walk in the middle of the day.  A staycation is code for there will be lots of arguments, fights, and yelling in the house for the next two weeks + because we are all in the house with nothing much to do.

We are nearing the end of our first winter-break staycation in over a decade.  Last night, after cooking and serving yet another family dinner, I sat down at the table and was about to announce that I felt neither appreciated nor respected when one of the kids blurts out, “Let’s go around the table and share what we are happy or grateful about.”   And we do.  And I am on everyone’s list. Staycation is code for we don’t have to travel far in order to appreciate the power of our family.
School Starts on Tuesday.

The Lanyard by Billy Collins

The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the ‘L’ section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
‘Here are thousands of meals’ she said,
‘and here is clothing and a good education.’
‘And here is your lanyard,’ I replied,
‘which I made with a little help from a counselor.’
‘Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.’ she whispered.
‘And here,’ I said, ‘is the lanyard I made at camp.’
‘And here,’ I wish to say to her now,
‘is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.’

Posted in Gratitude, Love, Mindfulness, parenting, Uncategorized

We Mourn. We Get up. #SolidarityShabbat

Here is a sermon I delivered Friday night November 2nd,  one week after eleven Jews were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Shabbat Morning.  The sermon was delivered from an outline, written-out a touch more fully here.  

The Lord Is Close to the Broken Hearted (Psalm 34:19)

It is with sadness that we come together on this Shabbat. It was supposed to be a November celebration of our Veterans.  It was supposed to be a ‘get out the vote’ Shabbat.  It was never supposed to be a ‘#SolidarityShabbat We Stand with Pittsburgh’ Shabbat.  And here we are.  The Shabbat after the largest massacre of Jewish people on American soil: A minyan plus one and we will most certainly never be the same.

Our Shabbat was taken from us in hate last week and this week, we gather together to reclaim our sabbath with LOVE.  No one, no act of hatred, no vile rhetoric, will take away our faith, our sense of pride in who we are, in our people, and our history.

We come together to mourn and weep and like our father Abraham who sat beside his wife mourning and weeping her after her death. For in this week’s Torah portion, Chaya Sarah, the Life of Sarah, Sarah dies at 127 years old, Abraham weeps and wails by her side and then he gets up from his wailing and goes out to purchase a grave for his beloved.

Abraham mourns and he does a mitzvah. His sadness is not over, but he does not let it stop him from what needs to be done, from fulfilling his obligation.  Abraham provides us with a good lesson today: A day when we do not put mourning aside.  A day when we do not hide from our very purpose:  To Live! To be God’s partners on earth.

We mourn.  And we get up.  We get up because we stand against hatred and we get up because we know that silence is the enemy.

  • We mourn and we get up because we know Anti-Semitism is on the rise
  • We mourn and we get up because 14 months ago we were witness to a gang of white supremacist thugs in Charlottesville with AK 47s in their hands
  • We mourn and we get up because in 2017 we saw a 12.5 % increase in hate crimes –the 4thannual rise in a row and the highest total in over a decade
  • We mourn and we get up because Anti-Semitic acts rose by 57% since 2016
  • We mourn and we get up because # of hate groups is growing and the statistics continue…

And these statistics, they should not surprise us, although I know they are unsettling.  Our history is a history of these statistics—of acts of hatred against us because of our faith; because people don’t want to get to know the other, because people fear what they do not know.

  • We mourn and get up and do Justice because we are a people who are intimately aware of the effects of SILENCE
  • We mourn and we get up because it is how we survive and how we thrive and how we flourish and because our tradition demands it.

We read in the Talmud: What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor (Shabbat 31a) and act on Rabbi Hillel’s teaching, in a place where there is no human strive to be human (Pirke Avot 2.5).

We are a people who believe B’tzelem Elohim—we are all created equal & in the image of God. Oh, how the Jewish doctors and nurses lived this dictum while taking care of the injured killer on Saturday all while he was shouting hate against the Jewish people.

Yes, we work for the healing of the world. Not just some of the world. All of it.  That is our job: Our Rabbis taught, God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world: yellow clay, white sand, black loam, and red soil.  Therefore, no one can declare to any race or color of people that they do not belong here since this soil is their home. (Yalkut Shimoni 1:13)

We mourn and we act not from fear but from a love that responds to hate.  We act not from FEAR: Face Everything And Run but from FEAR: Face Everything And Rise! Acts of Hatred will not take our soul from us.   Acts of hatred against anyone are acts of hatred against all of us and when we work for the liberation of one, we work for the liberation of all.

We meet these acts of hatred and destroy them with the power of love. Of Hesed—of loving-kindness. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; Only love can do that.”

We mourn and we offer love.  We respond to this most recent ugly, horrific murder of our people, this baseless hatred with getting up and doing the spiritual work of loving- kindness. One action at a time:

  • We call out racial bias and discrimination
  • We donate to and support HIAS
  • We celebrate diversity
  • We invite others into our homes
  • We study and learn so we can grow together
  • We educate ourselves and others about the evils of hate and we work to stop it.
  • We have our hearts open to the suffering of each other and the other
  • We show our love in countless ways.

We mourn.  We Get Up. We Love.  and in doing so, we receive a measure of comfort.  We know this is not easy, for offering love in challenging times takes courage.

At the end of this week’s Parsha, Abraham dies, and his two sons, Isaac and Ismael come together, to bury their father (Gen. 25:7).  I imagine it took courage to not only bury their father who had hurt and disappointed each of them, but this act of love, of burying their father took courage for them to show up to each other. I imagine that each received a measure of comfort from this mitzvah, from seeing each other in an act of giving, of kindness for each other and their father.

A few verses before Abraham’s death we read: “Isaac took Rebecca as his wife.  Isaac Loved her and found comfort after his mother’s death.” ( Gen 24:67).  This is the first time the Torah mentions love between people.  It is Isaac, the one whom his father placed on the Alter, and who is in mourning at the death of his beloved mother,  who is said to have found love.  It is Isaac who found comfort through the love and kindness of another.

May the Holy One who weeps with us, send us comfort and love.  May our people and all people everywhere be held with tenderness and love this sabbath. May our mourning and the memory of our eleven sisters and brothers help us Get Up and serve the living with fearlessness, peace, and love.

Ken Yihi Ratzon. May this be true.

 

Posted in #Solidarity Shabbat, Anti Semitism, Congregation Beth Am, Death and Mourning, Fear, Hate, Jews and Trump, Love, sadness, sermons, Uncategorized

Witness. Feel. Act.

Chol Ha Mo’ed Sukkot Sermon offered at Congregation Beth Am,  September 28, 2018

I want to share about this momentous time we are in  our Country.  We are at a crossroads.  Never before has there been a supreme court justice elected into the lifetime position along party lines.  To my knowledge, we have not seen or heard the partisan politics, the animosity, the lies, the campaigning, the crying, yelling, the threatening… the circus that we have seen from the elected officials as we have this week.

In the last few hours, the Reform Movement has put out a statement in response to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote to recommend Judge Brett Kavanaugh as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, released the following statement on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the wider Reform Movement institutions:

“We are deeply disappointed by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s recommendation today, which puts Judge Kavanaugh one step closer to a seat on the Court. The Reform Jewish Movement continues to believe that Judge Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court would significantly jeopardize the most fundamental rights, rooted in our enduring Jewish values, that we have long supported.

“The recent allegations of sexual assault have added urgency to our opposition. The Senate must take these allegations seriously, especially given that the position in question is a lifetime appointment. We are particularly pained as we think of the youth of this country, who will endure the consequences of this nomination process and, potentially Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation, for decades to come. As Zoe Terner, the Social Action Vice President of NFTY, the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, wrote in an open letter to Senators,

‘The nine individuals who serve life terms on the highest court in the land must be the best that our nation has to offer. As Reform Jews, as Americans, and as patriots, we believe that that this kind of treatment of women cannot possibly be the best that our country has to offer. We must believe that this nation is capable of so much more.’

“We urge the full Senate to reject Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination when it comes to the floor for a vote.”

There is much to discuss and share about Judge Kavanaugh, Dr. Ford, Washington D.C. and the future of democracy.  We can and will share and discuss this in the future together, as a community yet tonight, I don’t want to talk about the hearing, the FBI, the process.  Tonight, I want to talk about how I am feeling. Perhaps you are feeling similarly.

Tonight, I want to be with you and tell you that I am hurt.  That I hurt.  My stomach hurts, my heart hurts and I ache for justice to be felt and I am shaken by the lack of compassion, kindness, and general decency, exhibited by so many of our elected officials and our citizenry.

Tonight, I want to tell you that I am grieving.   I am grieving because when we do not witness fairness and equality from the highest offices in our great country it means trouble and our great democracy is in peril.  I am grieving because I see privilege and kowtowing captivating more than a woman’s courage and devotion to her country.  I am grieving because I fear that the return from this brokenness will not happen in my lifetime.

Tonight, I feel exhausted from the heartache of watching Dr. Ford tell her truth and from the disgust and fear I felt when I heard a judge yell and lose his cool.  I am exhausted from triggers and from the news reports of thousands of men and woman sharing their stories of abuse and assault that no one took the time to witness and believe.

I am exhausted, grieving, and hurt at the trauma so many of us have and how easily and summerly dismissed these stories are.

This is real, deep down pain: as a woman, as a citizen, as a witness.

This week we have all been witnesses: Witnesses to trauma, anger, pain, courage and strength and the power of the voice.  The extraordinary poet, David Whyte, in a recent On Being podcast spoke about the importance of being a witness.  He said there is “privilege of having been seen by someone… to have walked with them and to have believed in them and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span in a journey impossible to accomplish alone.” (On Being, September 10)

We, together are witnesses and we

Do not run.
Do not fear.
Do not hate.

We, together are Witnesses and we

Stand with
Love
Feel and

Act.

On this Shabbat of Sukkot, may we truly come to feel the impermanence of the sukkah, both its fragility and its shelter. For indeed we stand under the canopy that is Love and is of love and together we stay present in the moment, we feel, and we get up and try again, one day at a time.

Ken Yihu Ratzon.  May this be true.  

 

 

 

Posted in civil discourse, Congregation Beth Am, holidays, Love, sermons, Twelve Steps, Uncategorized

Do Not Despair: A Yom Kippur Sermon

There is cable news station that is often on in my house, or on my Sirius XM radio in the car… until someone tells me to turn it off. I don’t have a lot of time to listen or watch the news, but over the course of the last few years, I have almost obsessively turned on this station whenever I can.  It is actually problematic because the news often puts in a despair.

This has been a difficult couple of years in our country.  No matter which side of the political aisle you stand, the hate spewing, the lies, the harsh rhetoric of hatred of the other, the natural disasters, the images of toddlers alone in jail cells, and in our own lives, we grieve with the loss of a loved one, we’re faced with unemployment and worry about how to make ends meet, there has been recent diagnoses and health concerns, there is family strife, there is an uptick in teen suicide, of overdosing, of gun violence.  It is a lot to hold. It’s enough to bring on depression and despair.

Much of Jewish text and literature is devoted to despair. The psalmist writes of it, our history teaches it and our Sages speak on it from an intimate place of knowing. The trauma of despair is ingrained in our collective memory.

There are antidotes to living in depressing times. Today I see a threefold answer to despair.  One: celebrate life with gratitude and passion. Two: get involved in causes that matter to you and help others, and three: belong to a community of support.

To celebrate life with passion and gratitude does not mean to forget or ignore that which needs a tikkun, a repair.  Living one’s life, knowing that our life is of value and purpose is an answer to despair. To truly live means we experience both joy and sadness and we are able to see that our aliveness is enriching, miraculous and stunning!  Each morning when we wake up we are to say the words Modeh/Modah ani lefanecha—“Grateful am I! Thank you, God, for this new day of life!” When we engage in our life, we can find beauty even when we think there is none to be found.  Living as our best selves is how we survive in difficult times. We do not retreat, we do not hide. We answer life, even if whispered, with Hineini, “Here I am.”  We do our best to get out of bed and greet the day because it is ours and the alternative leads to further darkness and despair.

I am not so naïve to say that offering a “Here I am” to the day alone is the answer to overcoming despair. Some of us have great difficulty facing the day. We may be diagnosed with the medical condition of depression or anxiety or something else. And for this, the remedy is to get help from the professional community and seek care in order to live one’s life in the way one is able. This alone is a blessing in life.

The answer to despair lies in the foundational belief that we are created to live our life– to experience joy and pleasure, the mundane and yes, even the painful.  When we love and engage in our life, even as we might hold the pain, our despair is diminished.

I’ve often heard that the answer to our own pain, or to the societal and political ills of our time is that we have to have hope that things will get better.  I do not believe that the answer to despair is hope.  I think we have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to hope. Since we were children we have been told that if we have a positive mental attitude and show up with a smile, it will all work out for the best, that “we can if we think we can.”  The problem is the good guy doesn’t always win, the underdog does not always come out on top and believing this generally leads to frustration, self-doubt, and even more despair.

Take for example a close friend of mine’s terminally ill mother who is in hospice right now.  Hope for this woman is not helpful, yet she is very interested in living her life despite her fears and keen awareness that the number of her days is finite.  She is living her life, she gets her hair done at her home, her friends come over and bring dinner from the places that she loves, she hosts guests and she goes to the dentist, still.  She is not biding her time, waiting to die, succumbing to the depths of despair that she has every right to get to.    For her, response to suffering is to live as she is able.  She still is able to find passion in her days because as long as she has breath, she has life and the opportunity to have meaning.

Hope implies that things are going to get better. Sometimes that happens for sure, but as a rabbi who is with you in times of great need, and as a person who has suffered herself, I know we don’t have a fairy tale God. There is a God, a Higher Power however that will help us get up one day at a time, who will be there for us when we fall and who will pick us up to try again.  There is a God who helps us live and find meaning in our life on the best days and on the worst too.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav one of our greatest teachers, a Hasidic master, knew despair well.  He suffered from depression and despite that, encouraged us to have joy.   He was known to say, “Do not despair!” “Do not despair!” Because for every fall, or descent, there is an ascent and we get up.  He did not want us to live as though we were in exile and remove ourselves from daily living but rather he taught, “One must …constantly strive to free oneself from exile and to seek living conditions which are conducive to joy.[1]

We don’t live life and forget what is going on in our life or the world that needs our attention, but it is precisely because of what is going on that we must live life fully.  Emil Fackenheim, a post-holocaust theologian added a commandment to the 613 mitzvot that are in the Torah.  Fackenheim’s 614thcommandment is that we do not give Hitler a posthumous victory.  Meaning, we live and shout our presence and purpose to the world and we do good and we take care of each other and we continue to bring the Jewish values of righteousness and justice into our lives and into the world.[2]

We combat our despair through gratitude, passionate living and recognizing the value of the self and we combat despair in an age of challenge and pain by using our energy, passions, and resources to change that which we believe needs fixing.

There is so much that is wrong with our Country right now.   Whatever it is that you feel needs to be repaired, please, get to work!  We read in Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Ancestors: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? and if not now, when?”[3]  We belong to the Reform Movement in Judaism which has at its core the belief in the prophetic call to social justice, the need to make this a better world and we take welcoming the stranger, providing for the needy, being stewards of the land, protecting the climate, fighting for equality and the rights of all people, to heart.

We believe the words of our prophet Amos “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[4]  And we are with Isaiah when he demands,  “See that Justice is done: defend widows and orphans and help those in need.”[5]  Judaism demands that we pursue justice, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” we read in Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”[6]

The time is now to pay attention to what is going on around us. To not “stand idly by”[7]but rather to pursue justice and to make our voices heard.  One tremendous way to accomplish this, to head the call of our tradition, is to use our inalienable rights to practice the great gift of democracy and Vote!

We live in a representative democracy and we have the power to change that which does not serve us. We have the power to elect smart and compassionate, action-oriented leaders that protect and defend and repair that which is broken and causing harm, distress, and despair.    In this regard, voter engagement is essential. Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.”[8]   The Reform movement, through the Religious Action Center, the RAC, has taken on the righteous task of voter engagement and Beth Am is one of many congregations across the country that are joining together to “ensure that our voices and commitment to social justice are heard in the public sphere, [to do this we know that] we must educate ourselves on the voting process, register to vote and show up at the polls. We also have a responsibility to engage with our wider community to ensure that access to the vote is a reality for all.”[9]

There is voter registration information in the foyer and more information is and will be on our Facebook pages.  Beth Am is committed to being a congregation with 100% voter engagement and registration. We really want and need your help with this task. It is not only our civic duty, but it is also an answer to despair and what it means to be a responsible citizen in our great democracy.

I have offered two ways which I think help alleviate despair:  To live life with passion and to be involved in bringing about justice in the world. And thirdly, despair diminishes when you belong to a supportive community and are with others who care about you and of whom you care about.

One of the most powerful sections of Torah is when Moses is in great despair. The people are in the desert and they are crying out to him, they are angry and asking to be sent back to Egypt, where at least they knew where their next meal was coming from and where they felt they had better food!

The Israelites cried out to Moses,

“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all!  Nothing but this manna to look to!”  Moses heard the people yelling and weeping, everyone focused on him at the entrance to his tent. Our text continues, “And Adonai was very angry and Moses was distressed.  And Moses said to Adonai, why have You dealt ill with Your servant and Why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all these people, did I bear them?….Where am I to get meat to give all this people when they wince before me and say, “Give us meat to eat!” I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You and let me see no more of your wretchedness!”[10]

Moses—our Rabbi and the greatest prophet was in utter despair.  And God’s answer? We read, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you…. [T]hey shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.[11]

God’s answer to Moses’s despair: ‘you do not have to do this alone.’  God did not exempt Moses from doing the work, but God did say, the task at hand is to too big for one person, even the greatest leader of our people.  We are commanded to do justice, we are told, do not despair and we are taught, you cannot do this alone.

In moments of despair, times when we think we can’t possibly go on, moments where we think we can’t take one more minute of the insanity or hardship or struggle, when we feel useless, or powerless or when the heart suffers or aches from loss, we are to seek the comfort, care and support of community.  Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski teaches us in his Introduction to Healing from Despair, “What kind of human communication can help a person in distress? Empathy, the feeling that there is someone who can identify with another person’s suffering.”[12] As a people of faith who has experienced a history of moments of despair and horrifying tragedies, we follow God’s teachings and we make sure to gather together.

Each of us comes to the synagogue on this, the holiest day of the year for a different reason.  Why are you here?  There must be some reason because we can be anywhere else, it is a Wednesday morning after all.  Whatever the reason, something drew you to sit with other folks on Yom Kippur,  a fast day that reminds us of the mistakes we made and the repair that needs to be done.  It is a day where we admit our sins, not as Al Chet—I have sinned, but rather, we say together, “we have sinned.”  We are in this life together—for better or for worse.  In the Talmud we are taught, “A prisoner cannot free himself.”[13] Alone we will not be freed from our despair, but together, we find ways to lift each other up and live! We are a people who seek connectedness and it has proven invaluable and a source of life to us and our people.

May we each be blessed with more joy than sadness, together may we lift each other out of despair, and May our life lived with gratitude and passion be for us and the world a blessing.

Ken yihi ratzon. May this be true.

[1]Chaim Kramer, Edited by Ozer Bergman, The Treasure of Unearned Gifts: Rebbe Nachman’s path to happiness and contentment in life.  Breslov Research Institute, Jerusalem/New York 1996, p.45.

[2]Emil Fackenheim first published this idea in an article, Jewish Faith and the Holocaust, a Fragment,

in 1968. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/jewish-faith-and-the-holocaust-a-fragment/

[3]Pirke Avot 1:14

[4]5:23-24

[5]1:17

[6]Deut 16:20

[7]Leviticus 19:16

[8]Talmud, Brakhot 55a

[9]http://rac.org/sites/default/files/Voter-Engagement-Toolkit.pdf

[10]JPS translation Numbers 11:4-15

[11]Ibid 11:16-17

[12]Spitz, Rabbi Elie Kaplan.  Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in A Broken

World. Jewish lights publishing, Woodstock, VT. 2008. P. xiv

[13]Brachot 5b

Posted in civil discourse, Congregation Beth Am, Gratitude, High Holidays, sadness, sermons, Shana Tova, Uncategorized, Voting Engagement

Kol Nidre: You Have Permission

[To the tune of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood theme song] It’s a beautiful eve in the sanctuary, a solemnly evening in the synagogue. I’m glad you’re here, I’m glad to share, this holy day with you.

I was 36 years old when Mr. Rogers died. I hadn’t watched him in decades, but I did think of his loving messages from time to time, especially when Kyle and I were talking about raising our own family.  I remember watching Mister Rogers tie his shoes and put on his sweater while singing the Wont You be My Neighbortheme song. I believed Mr. Rogers was speaking directly to me. I believed he saw through the television set to see me and to speak to me.  I especially liked Daniel Tiger and Mr. Mcfeely, the delivery man and dear friend and did not like the rather stern King Friday XIII.     When Fred Rogers died of stomach cancer in 2003 I felt someone important to me had died. It was a loss, a dear loss, actually.

In countless ways, Fred Rogers helped me to feel safe and loved.  He said to me—and all of his audience, child and parent alike, “You are a very special person. There is only one like you in the whole world.  There’s never been anyone exactly like you before, and there never will be again.  Only you. And people can like you exactly as you are.” [1]

A version of this became the last line of the bedtime prayers we said to our children.  It goes like this:  “Your Mom and your Dad, your siblings, and the cats love you, your grandparents, your aunts, your uncles love you, your teachers and your friends love you, and God loves you…just the way you are.”

In the recent movie, Wont You Be My Neighbor, we hear Mr. Rogers talk about offering someone an unconditional ‘you are loved.’ He says, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.

Mr. Rogers teaches us this and does the Torah and our tradition.

A story is told of a woman who went to visit the rabbi of a small a small school that was talked about from one side of the country to the other.  All of the school’s graduates were deeply engaged within their communities and all were said to be the kindest and most generous of souls. The school seemed to work magic on its students and the woman wanted to know why. So, one day she traveled to the school and when the rabbi who led the school opened the door, she said “I hear about your school everywhere I go. Everybody talks about it. They say you create magic here. What is your secret?” The rabbi, a quiet and gentle man, said, “There’s no magic here, and I don’t think we have any secrets.  But if you have a moment, I’ll be happy to give you a tour.”

They walked down the hall until they came to the first classroom. The woman peeked inside and saw that all the children in the classroom were waving their hands because

they wanted to answer some question that had been posed by the teacher. Every student was participating in the same enthusiastic way. Then, one of the girls turned her head and saw the face of the rabbi. And she waved her hands, both hands, at him and she smiled, and her face seemed to radiate with an almost heavenly glow.  The woman asked, “Who is this girl?” And the rabbi answered, “Ahh, this girl my bat yechidah, my only daughter.” And the woman understood why the girl was so enthusiastic and so excited.

As they walked down the hall to the next room, there was a similar scene – most of the students were waving their hands, hoping to be called on. There was one boy – in the back of the class – who was not waving his hands, not participating. He was bent over his desk, drawing in his notebook. And then, for some reason, he too, looked up at the door and saw the rabbi – and he straightened up in his seat and a big smile broke out over his face and he waved his hand at the rabbi and the rabbi smiled back.  So, the woman asked, “And who is this boy?” And the rabbi answered, “Ahh, this boy, he is my ben yachid, my only son.” And the woman smiled in understanding.  The rabbi said, “Let me show you one more classroom.”

In the next classroom, as soon as they stepped into the doorway, a young girl looked up, saw the rabbi, and she too gave a huge smile and a big wave.  The woman asked, “Well, who is this?” “This girl,” the rabbi said, “she is my bat yechidah. My only daughter.”  To which the woman said, “What are you talking about? You told me the girl from the first classroom was your only daughter; the boy from the second classroom was your only son.  How can this child also be your only daughter?  How is that even possible?” And the rabbi said

to her, “My friend, you don’t understand. None of these children are my biological children. In fact, I have no children of my own.  But still, each of these students is my ben yachid, my only child, and each of these students is my bat yachidah, my only child. And each of them is their teacher’s only son and only daughter too.  At this school we look at every child as if they were our only child. Perhaps that is the secret of which you speak.”

What does it mean to be a ben yachidor bat yachidah?

It means each one of us is loved.  There is enough love to go around for everyone.  The heart is capable of loving more.

To be a yachidor yachidahmeans that we each feel loved with a sense that we are innately good and uniquely special, created in God’s image to be just the way we are.

To be a ben yachidor a bat yachidah, means to know that we matter in the world. That we are seen for who we are and not what we are.

On this, the holiest day of the year, each of us is familiar with the assigned sacred deed of chesbon nefesh—taking an accounting of our soul; the task of reviewing our past mistakes, our regrets. This is also a time, if we are honest about it, when the mind is more likely to rehash all of our would-ofs, could-ofs, should-ofs of the past year.

It is a time when we or our children might ask, as Mr. Roger’s did in the voice of Daniel Tiger, “I’ve been wondering if I was a mistake. For one thing, I’ve never seen a tiger that looks like me. And I’ve never heard a tiger that talks like me. And I don’t know any other tiger who lives in a clock. Or loves people. Sometimes I wonder if I’m too tame. . . . I’m not like anyone else I know. I’m not like anyone else.

The days of awe are designed to fill us with Yirah—fear. Fear of God and maybe perhaps fear that we won’t be inscribed for blessing, that we are too far gone, that we must repent or face punishment, that we are people who miss the mark time and time again, and maybe deep down we fear that we will not be seen, that we are not loveable!

But this Holy Day is also designed to fill us with Yirah—awe, a sense of the pure, divine light that calls us from deep within to see our own exquisite beauty, worthiness, and love. No matter the mistakes, the missed opportunities and fears we may hold.   It calls us to see and feel the awesomeness of our own being, the divinity we possess because God sees it and God knows this to be true! God is the very creator of the holy sparks that are within us.

In our liturgy we look at the yirah—the fear of the closing gates and we offer up and admit our transgressions together by taking a fist to the heart as we say, Al chet, we have sinned.

We will do this several times together throughout the next 24 hours.

But what if we added something else during the Days of Awe and on this Yom Kippur Kol Nidre evening? What if we gently put our hand on the heart as we thought about the good that we did rather than on contemplating all the wrong we did? What if we spent time asking, “How am I bringing care and compassion to the world? Can we ask ourselves with genuine loving curiosity, as Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov asks, “What are the nikudot tovot?” What are my good points, my good qualities?

At this holiest of moments, can we give ourselves the permission to bring forth our voice of love and courage rather than solely our voice of judgment, criticism, and shame?

It is permissible to do this, you know. For the voice of love is the voice of God.  Rabbi Akiva wrote, “How greatly God must have loved us to create us in the image of God, yet even greater love did God show us in making us conscious that we are created in the divine image”[2]

God wants us to be God’s partner and bring love to the world and there is no better way to do this holy task than to show love to the self.  On a day where we return to the pure state of our soul and return to our essence and to the divine that is within us, there is no better a time than to feel the heart and fill it with love and compassion for our own self.

For many of us this task does not come easy, and some still, might not think it necessary.  I’ll tell you, I had a hard time believing the importance of the task of sending love and compassion to the self, and it did not, and still does not come easily to me.  But it is of utmost importance to know how to do this and do it, in order that we live the blessed life that we are entitled to and created to have.

For more than a few years now I have learned and practiced unconditional love for the self from my teachers and their teachers and it’s a work in progress. One way to begin this practice is to think back to a time when you felt loved and seen.  It doesn’t have to be a moment that lasted longer than a second or a minute. It could be from a long time ago, a while back in childhood maybe, or it could be as recently as the past week. This moment of feeling seen and loved could be either from either someone you know or from someone you don’t know–maybe a time you received a friendly smile or a kind glance from a stranger who’s path you crossed.  This moment of being seen, of feeling loved, could also come from a pet.  As we reflect on that moment, perhaps we can bring to our heart that feeling of love and care. For it truly is a moment of profound grace and goodness.[3]

It is a moment of love, a moment the Divine One created and it is forever embedded into our heart and soul, mind and body.

This memory of a loving moment is as important on this Holy Day as the awareness of Al Chet, ‘we have missed the

mark.’  We are human, and our humanity cannot be defined by our mistakes, regrets, wrongdoings, or our life circumstance, our age or our perceived usefulness.  Again, Fred Rogers teaches,

“What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing.  A sick child is much more than his or her sickness.  A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor.”

In our prayer Avinu Malkanu, we pray, “Avinu Malkanu choneinu vaaneinu; Almighty and Merciful—Answer us with grace.”   Grace, God’s gift of unconditional love is what we seek on this Holy Day.  Grace which allows us to feel God’s abiding love which never departs from us, no matter the imperfections, no matter the deeds done.  This is the meaning of this day.  The gates are always open to receive God’s love and Grace.  This is the blessing of our lives.

May we be blessed with the feelings of being held and loved.  May we know and feel that God loves us just the way we are.

Ken Yihi Ratzon. May this be true.

 

 

 

[1]Rogers, Fred. (2005) Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers: Things to Remember along the Way,

Hyperion. p. 29

[2]Pirke Avot 3: 18

[3]Makransky, John. (2007) Awakening through Love.  Wisdom Publications and

http://www.johnmakransky.org

 

Posted in civil discourse, Congregation Beth Am, Gratitude, High Holidays, Love, Mindfulness, parenting, prayer, sermons, Teshuva, Uncategorized

Why I joined The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival

On a hot summer August day in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out of his car and was greeted by a mob of 700 angry white protesters in Marquette Park on Chicago’s southwest side. Shortly after he stepped forward to greet that mob, he was pelted with a rock on the side of the head, the force strong enough to bring him to the ground. Undeterred, Dr. King rose up and continued his nonviolent direct-action call for an end to inequality and hate.

Later that afternoon he addressed the media and recalled, “This is a terrible thing. I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the south, but I can say that I have never seen—even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I have seen in Chicago.”

Chicago still, to this very day remains one of the most segregated cities in America.   There is an epidemic of gun violence and the rate of poverty, hunger and homelessness is staggering: “More than one-third of Illinois residents and nearly half of Chicagoans are considered low-income or living in poverty,” and extreme poverty grew by 384% from 2000-2015.

Dr. King preached an end to racism and poverty and militarism. Today, The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, co-chaired by the Revs. William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis continue Dr. King’s legacy and is a national movement dedicated to overcoming systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation and the war economy.

The Poor People’s Campaign is currently in the midst of a 40 day direct non-violent action taking place in Washington DC and in over 30 states including Illinois.  The direct-action dates to join with the Poor People’s Campaign are May 14, 21, 28and June 4, 11, 18, with a culminating event in Washington, DC on June 23.

I joined the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival because the message of direct action to end racism and poverty, ecological devastation and a war economy is compelling and it is the right thing to do.

I joined the Poor People’s Campaign because I am answering the call of the One who calls me to act concerning the poor and disenfranchised.  We read in Deuteronomy:

If there is among you a poor person of your kin, within any of the gates in your land which the Adonai your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor kin, but you shall open your hand wide to them and willingly lend them sufficient for their needs, whatever their needs…You shall open your hand wide to your kin, to your poor and your needy, in your land.”(15:7-11.)

I joined the Poor Peoples Campaign because I hear Isaiah’s call which we at Congregation Beth Am and other reform synagogues read together each Yom Kippur and so I know what God requires of me:

Is this the fast that I have chosen, a day for a person to afflict their soul? Is it to bow down their head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Adonai? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Adonai shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:5-8)

I joined the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and will travel to Springfield, IL on May 28 and extend an open invitation to all and hope you will join me on the 28th and in June! 

See the Illinois Poor People’s Campaign for more info and to learn more about The Reform Movements’ commitment to meeting the urgency of now with moral leadership through congregational and community-based action, and our involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign visit, Religious Action Center.

Blessings ~

RLSB

 

 

 

 

 

 

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