A Prayer in the Aftermath of a Tragedy

A version of this prayer by Rabbi Joe Black, Temple Emanuel, Denver, Colorado was offered as the Opening Prayer for the Colorado House of Representatives on Thursday, February 15th. What appears below includes a number of edits made by Rabbi Jessica Shimberg in preparation for our LMKehillah Kabbalat Shabbat Service on February 16, 2018/2 Adar 5778.

Our God and God of all people,

God of the rich and God of the poor.

God of the teacher and God of the student.

God of the families who wait in horror.

God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks.

God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways. 

God of the doctor who treats the wounded.

God of the rabbi, pastor, imam, priest, who seeks and is sought to offer words of comfort but comes up empty.

God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.

God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body.

God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.

God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.

God of the reporters for whom covering mass shootings has become “business as usual.”

God of the Right.

God of the Left.

God who hears our prayers.

God who listens in silence, suffering with us.

On this tragic day,

this 46th day of 2018,

we struggle in the aftermath of the 18th school shooting in our nation.

I wonder aloud: What does it mean to pray in the aftermath of such a tragedy?

Our prayers have not stopped the bullets.

Our prayers have changed nothing.

Once again, a disturbed man with easy access to guns and a crowd of unsuspecting students and their teachers, a disturbed man empowered by a climate of violence and vitriolic speech, has used a powerful weapon to slaughter innocents.

Students and teachers. Brothers and sisters. Parents and children.

Friends and teammates. Freshmen and Seniors.

Cut down in an instant by the power of greed, money, politics, technology.

And we are culpable, O God.

We are guilty of inaction.

We are guilty of distraction.

We are guilty of complacency.

We are guilty of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by politics.

We are guilty of becoming numbed by the pain.

The blood of our children cries out from the ground.

The blood of police officers cut down in the line of duty flows through our streets.

The voices of innocents silenced by the color of their skin cries for change.

Holy One, in the midst of this devastation, I do not appeal to You to change this human mess we have made. I prayer that WE will, with our Sacred Energy, change what is to make it what should be.

May we have the strength to realize that banning immigrants is not a pathway to safety, security and prosperity.

May we have the integrity to admit that many of the monsters we fear live among us, look like us, and are empowered by our arrogance and blindness.

May those (in this room) whom we have given the power to  make change find the courage to seek a pathway to collaborative work that creates policy and process solutions that restore hope and build bridges.

May we hold ourselves and our elected officials accountable.

Only then will our prayerful words be infused with meaning.

Only then will our petitions for safety and prosperity be worthy.

Only then will we be able to hear the Sacred reply.

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At the Confluence of Water, Trees, and Moon

Tonight, our LMKehillah will welcome me home, celebrating my smicha (ordination through the laying on of hands – the ancient ritual of rabbinic transmission) by my rabbis earlier this month. Smicha, in the ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP), occurs early each January in Broomfield, Colorado, near the Rocky Mountains and the Boulder home of our beloved Reb Zalman, z”l. Each year, we gather for a glorious student-led Shabbaton which precedes ordination Sunday (our own annual super bowl), Smicha and its ancillary rituals, and then an extraordinary clergy conference hosted by OHALAH, a trans-denominational association of rabbis and cantors which attracts an  array of clergy from across the globe.

Most AOP students, like me, have lived a few seasons of life … we’ve had a career (or two), created families, experienced our share of delights and grief, and come to our new status as clergy with vast experience actively serving congregations. In this way, we are significantly different than students in other Jewish seminaries. We also come into the AOP with vastly different backgrounds, Jewishly and educationally. We are from Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, Renewal and non-Jewish families of origin. Some of us are already ordained through other movements, some have a masters degree in Jewish studies, and some, like me, never took a Jewish studies class in college and have done a great deal of self-study before we begin to be shaped as Jewish Renewal clergy for the 21st century.

As I return to our LMKehillah, I am aware that I am the same rabbi I was in December AND that I returned to Columbus transformed. We all have experiences in our lives that mold and shape us … some are long and arduous (like the seven plus years I spent in rabbinical school) and some are short but expansive moments (like the week I just spent in Colorado). And, with each, it takes us a bit of time on the “other side” of that portal to determine exactly how the transformative experience will alter the course of our lives and how we will utilize its impact to channel the holy energy we feel coursing within us.

In so many ways, I feel that our Little Minyan Kehillah and I both stand in transformed places. The LMKehillah has been germinating, growing, reaping, and re-sowing seeds within the central Ohio landscape for more than a dozen years. We are firmly within our bat mitzvah year as an organically-grown alternative (to more formally organized “institutional Judaism”), warmly welcoming the spiritual and the skeptical. When we started this venture, in 2005-06, we were more clear about what we weren’t than what we were. Now, and as we gather on Sunday, January 28th for a Full Community Meeting to begin charting our course forward, we are no longer nascent, no longer “little,” no longer a timid and unsure “Little Minyan that Could.”

As an adolescent kehillah/community, we are full of vim and vigor, full of ideas and dreams, full of ruach/spirit and oneg/delight. We have fantastic members and many, many groovy friends. We are involved in many meaningful activities and host fantastic events. And, just as any gardener knows, it is a long journey from sowing seeds and reaping a few delicious veggies to a sustainable harvest. We are aware that we will run out of energy and other important resources if we are not able to grow our garden by attracting more spiritual and/or skeptical neshamot/souls to participate in the 21st century approach to Jewish community we are intent on building together.

This weekend we welcome Shabbat Shirah ~ the Shabbat in which the parsha (Torah portion) we read includes the Song of the Sea. In our formative Jewish story of departing from narrowness in the journey toward freedom, we cross the Sea of Reeds because of a miracle. The parting of the water is reflected in the the way Shirat haYam is scribed in Torah and there are countless midrashic stories about what happened in this mythic moment that allowed us to cross the Sea and reach the far side, escaping the pursuing troops. I recently heard the great scholar, Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg talking about today’s Judaism on Judaism Unbound’s 100th podcast. He noted that the God of Torah appeared to the People through miracles; and although that God may appear far more present than the God that we may or may not recognize today, the opposite is true. That God, suggested Greenberg, was transcendent. Today, God is much closer, imminent but concealed, hidden in ways that parallel the obviousness of the miracle-performing God of Torah. As God’s partners in creation, it is our responsibility to manifest godliness in the world. This is much more complicated and requires collective participation in new ways, rather than the utilization of an intermediary like the kohanim/ priests of Torah, or the sagacious skills of the great rabbis of the Talmudic period, or even the very wise and knowledgable rabbis of the past 1400 years or so. What will it look like to create conscious Jewish community to make progress in “God-ing” (making the Sacred manifest in our world)? These are the questions that I am excited to ponder as a rabbi and as a member of the Little Minyan Kehillah.

So as I listen to the Song of the Sea this week in Torah, and raise my voice in song with our Mak’hela tonight during Kabbalat Shabbat, and enjoy conversation with our kehillah on Sunday about our future, and taste my way through a Tu b’Shvat seder, celebrating the New Year of the Trees with our Teva Travelers, and turn toward the full moon of Tu b’Shvat this Tuesday evening with our adult learners, I will do all of this with my eye toward the miracles we manifest and know that God is in the details of community building.

Shabbat Shalom!

Posted in ALEPH, Calendar, Eco-Judaism, Family, Lifecycle Ritual, Parshat, Reb Zalman, Shabbat, Spiritual Seeking, Tikkun Olam, Torah | Leave a comment

Patience, Faith, and Awakening … How to Treat a Hardened Heart

“Patience gives us an opportunity to test our faith.” 

I heard these words today as I took a break from working to wash the dishes that had accumulated in my kitchen sink. I have had the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart on my mind quite a bit this week (both because that is where Jews are in our cycle of reading Torah, and for reasons that are obvious to many Americans). I turned on my radio (tuned to 89.7 WOSU) to check in with the world and heard a British accent and a different format from the regular programming I was expecting and wondered why. As I listened to the story being broadcast because of a “technical difficulty,” which I now value as a “divine intervention” in my day, I came to know exactly why.

The BBC Heart and Soul piece from travel journalist Tharik Hussain, entitled Muslims in President Trump’s America, transported me from the kitchen sink to a much more expansive terrain. The picture Hussain painted of my country reignited and intertwined with the emotional-intellectual-spiritual topography of my week. This week, the second since my smicha/ordination as a rabbi, included, among other things:

  • the federal holiday celebrating the birth of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
  • the first anniversary of the inauguration of the current President of the United States,  and
  • an opportunity to fast and participate, locally, in a national vigil on the streets outside Wendy’s locations (18FaithFast).

“Patience gives us an opportunity to test our faith.” 

On a very brisk Thursday afternoon, local clergy, OSU students engaged in farmworker justice, and other allies stood in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and people of faith from across the country at the Wendy’s on North High Street across from the OSU campus. Wendy’s (an international, locally-created and -headquartered corporation) still refuses to sign the Fair Food Agreement that has been signed by all of its competitors and many other corporations, choosing instead to source its produce from Mexico, where farmworkers are victims of even more tragic and inhumane conditions in the fields and packing houses, all so that Wendy’s can increase their profit margin while we buy a cheap sandwich, chili, or fries. The words from the radio story resonate even more deeply because I heard them yesterday at the vigil as well. 

“Patience gives us an opportunity to test our faith.” 

There is no question that civil rights workers have always needed to call upon patience and perseverance. Faith in the Divine Mystery (one of my favorite “names” for God) has also been an important source of strength, courage, and fortitude. As we stood in the sunshine yesterday, the chill of the frigid temperatures heightening our awareness of our privilege to go home to warm houses, we recalled the work of Dr. King and those who stood with him – using their bodies to pray and speak truth to power in peaceful and persistent ways. We listened to words about the Wendy’s boycott from Uriel Perez, National Faith C0-Coordinator for the Alliance for Fair Food, and prayed together before we crossed High Street to try to speak with the Wendy’s manager and to give her a letter we had all signed asking that Wendy’s commit to participating in the Fair Food Program which ensures that farmworkers are not subject to human rights abuses.

When we entered the Wendy’s location, we were immediately met with hostility from the manager who would not speak to us and told us to leave and that she was calling the police. Even more disturbing was the “righteous indignation” from a young man, likely an OSU student, who was waiting in line at 3:30 p.m. He didn’t appear to be in a hurry, had no interest in the reason for our visit, and showed no respect for our visible status as Christian and Jewish clergy or for our “advanced age” (that of his parents and grand-parents). He was immediately combative, stepping forward to yell at this small band of clergy and students who quietly and politely asked to deliver a letter and a message about the treatment of those who planted, picked, packed and delivered his food.

“Patience gives us an opportunity to test our faith.” 

Some of us, accustomed to utilizing our privilege (among us, we held white, male, and educational privileges) to accomplish our goals, wanted to address the rudeness of the manager and the young man, wanted to stay to educate those in line, wanted to stay until the police arrived. However, as allies we do not set the agenda – we support it (an important lesson I learned years ago from the CIW while I was in Immokalee with T’ruah). Thus, we followed Uriel (our archangel ally of CIW) out of the Wendy’s as soon as we encountered resistance and returned to our vigil across the street. In helping us to understand this strategy, Uriel reminded us that the farmworkers do not hold the privilege that we do. Waiting for the police and other lawful activities are a luxury for those of us who hold privilege in this country. He also reminded us that the manager was not the culprit in our experience; she was merely following company policy so she can put food on the table and care for her family.

The experience of “white privilege” is challenging for me as a woman and as a Jew. Women in this country are still not treated equally to men, across the spectrum, and the rise in a national dialogue about sexual assault and misconduct by men against women is only beginning to uncover systemic repression and institutional bias. Sexism is very real; so is anti-Semitism. Earlier this year, I had to explain to my son, in the wake of Charlottesville, that there are still people in this country and beyond who don’t consider Jews to be “white” and that I have difficulty marking that box on any document that asks my race/ethnicity. My experience as “other,” though it currently involves far less open hostility than experienced by my friends of color and those who are Muslim and Sikh, is still trauma that informs my conscious and sub-conscious reactions and feelings. It is hard for me (and other Jewish women I have spoken with about this) to hold this duality of embodying both privilege and victimization, and I am working on growing my ability to speak clearly about this discomfort and pain.

“Patience gives us an opportunity to test our faith.” 

In thanking us, as faith leaders, for fasting and participating in the vigil, Uriel reminded us how much the farmworkers draw on their faith – their absolute belief in a God who cares for and protects the poor, the oppressed, the most marginalized among us. I remembered Uriel’s words again today as one of the Muslim voices on the radio spoke about building a bridge of love through good, authentic food. “The prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, had patience for people who attacked him and we are required to react this way as long as we are not directly threatened.” As an American Jew straddling the 20th and 21st centuries, I am acutely aware of how little I have had to utilize faith in God to achieve my goals. It sounds a bit odd from a newly ordained rabbi, and, in truth, many progressive Jews have a limited bandwidth for the word “faith” when it comes to our level of trust/belief/confidence in God. Those of us who live in the shadow of the Shoah/Holocaust and other unconscionable human tragedies, who grew up with much more emphasis on intellectual vs. spiritual pursuits, and who live privileged and protected lives, think we have less need for the kind of faith that farmworkers and American Muslims speak of. Although I do not envy their predicament, I do yearn for that level of faith in the Divine Mystery and have found myself walking in that direction for many years now, though I still frequently notice myself reverting to more ingrained intellectual tendencies. As I ally with CIW, I trust their well-considered decisions, deeply rooted in faith, about how best to proceed in this social justice work. They inspire me to be more faithful in my patience.

“Patience gives us an opportunity to test our faith.” 

“If you are doing ‘tit-for-tat’ of what other people are doing [to oppress you], you are one of them.” said a Muslim women who migrated to Morgantown, WV, in the 1970s. I think of my male colleague who was initially frustrated yesterday by the decision to leave Wendy’s. I, too, wanted to stay and use my privilege, position, and perceived power to lecture that young man who really got under my skin. I think of the long-term strategy of the CIW and the way they have responded to the arrogance and repeated dismissal by Wendy’s corporate leaders, board of trustees, and local managers who are just following company orders. It is akin to the hubris I see in the current U.S. President and others. It is so easy to get riled up and drawn into positional arguments …

I am drawn back to voices on the radio. Of Trump’s polarizing impact on America, a Muslim medical school professor in Morgantown says, “it has awakened us. There are more and more interfaith programs on the national and local level. God has a reason for everything,” he posits. “Maybe [God] brought this to unite us all under one umbrella.” I think of my passion for interfaith work here in Columbus and nationally, and the amazing friends and colleagues I now have because of our shared advocacy. Another voice on the radio talks about the extraordinary freedoms in the United States to practice whatever religion you wish in an great variety of ways. I am reminded of the ideals of those who founded this country and so many others who have paved the way for the work I do with Faith in Public Life, T’ruah, Interfaith Association of Central Ohio, Ohio Interfaith Power & Light, Safe Alliance of Interfaith Leaders, and others.

“Patience gives us an opportunity to test our faith.” 

 Near the end of the radio program, one of the young men being interviewed quotes the Quran, explaining that in the biblical story shared by the three Abrahamic faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the words that Jacob/Yakub repeated to himself when Joseph/Yusuf was taken from him are “patience is beautiful.” This is not in Torah and I have not studied the Koran; I am so intrigued by this interpretation of Jacob’s posture in light of the “loss” of his son. In Torah, we learn that Jacob/Ya’akov‘s response is to mourn the death of his son as soon as he is given Joseph/Yosef’s blood-soaked coat and told by his other sons that Joseph has been devoured by a wild beast.* I am inspired to study Quran with a Muslim friend … perhaps a group of us experiencing sacred text through different lenses. 

Patience and awakening (to the need for action) are combining to provide a sense of hope in many Muslim Americans, the voice from the radio says. I realize that I, too, am buoyed most days by the actions I am taking in response to my determination to turn this presidency, the impacts of oppression and incivility, and the debilitating apathy I see all around me into an opportunity to sow seeds of radical love, to cultivate positive relationships, to nourish unifying and energizing ideas and ideals. And thanks to the Muslim voices I have just heard on the BBC feed, and the Christian faithfulness of the farmworkers, I will add to my growing Jewish spiritual toolkit an extra dose of patience and faith. God knows, we are going to need plenty of both. As we see mirrored in this week’s parshat ha’shavua/ weekly Torah portion, we are deep in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and we will need patience, faith, and awakening to make our way to freedom.

For a valuable antidote to hardened hearts, in Mitzrayim (biblical Egypt) and in America, I share with you the music video I learned of in the prophetic radio broadcast this afternoon – click here to listen to Raef Haggag, whose song “We are Home” lifted the themes of the story in which he was featured.

May we be blessed with the patience to realize our shared home. 

Shabbat Shalom.

* B’reishit/Genesis 37:33-34
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At the Confluence of Rosh Chodesh Tevet and Winter Solstice

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Each year, we begin the celebration of Chanukah, our “Festival of Light,” late in the Hebrew month of Kislev. Despite the fact that Chanukah hops anywhere from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar (resulting in “Thanksgivukah” several … Continue reading

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Human Rights Shabbat – Holy Chutzpah

This Shabbat (Dec. 8-9) precedes both International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10) and Chanukah (beginning Tuesday, Dec. 12). To honor this global holiday, Jewishly, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb offers this d’var Torah on the week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeshev, by viewing the familiar sacred stories of B’reishit, through a human rights lens.

Join our Little Minyan Kehillah this Erev Shabbat, Friday, December 8th, 7:30 p.m., in the sanctuary of our friends at Columbus Mennonite Church (a sanctuary congregation), for a music- and light-filled  Human Rights Shabbat service.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document of great foresight and significance. T’ruah first encouraged the celebration of Human Rights Shabbat a decade ago, inspiring a key annual tradition in synagogues like ours. We feel both deeply Jewish and eminently human when we place the modern UDHR and ancient Torah side-by-side, and redouble our commitment to those globally-acknowledged inalienable rights.

Our parshah this week, Vayeshev, offers many opportunities to lay these two grounding texts side-by-side. We’ll focus on Tamar, in Genesis 38, just after Joseph is sold into slavery.

In the generation of Jacob’s twelve sons, Tamar and Dinah are the only women given narrative roles. Women’s exclusion from society or history is itself a human rights issue, from Torah to today. Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney notes that the names of other daughters of Jacob “are never called, nor are their numbers verified, but they are acknowledged in Genesis 37:35; 46:7; and 46:15.” Exodus opens with “these are the names,” but no: “These are not all the names” (Womanist Midrash, 2017, p. 87). Compare that exclusion with the Declaration’s Article 2 – “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms” herein, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex…” We must work together to enfranchise women, and everyone.

In Vayeshev, Tamar enfranchises herself, with ‘holy chutzpah.’ She marries Judah’s oldest son, Er, who later dies; so does his brother, Onan, who “spilled his seed.” Though the Bible seems to censure Onan’s unwillingness to father a child in the name of his deceased older brother, too many people derive a broader lesson and associate divine displeasure with contraception—making access to family planning a human rights issue of our own day.

Reluctant to let Tamar couple with his youngest son Shelach, Judah keeps her as an agunah, ‘chained woman,’ neither married nor free to remarry (contra UDHR Article 16: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation…have the right to marry and to found a family”). Seeing this, she dons a prostitute’s clothing and sleeps with her father-in-law Judah, keeping as pledge his staff and seal.“

About three months later, Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result is now pregnant.’ Judah said, ‘Bring her out and have her burned to death’” (Gen. 38:24; compare UDHR Article 25, “Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance”). Judgmental male control over female sexuality, too, remains a challenge today—not just in developing nations or isolated places, but with politicians, celebrities, and ‘ordinary’ men who objectify and abuse the women around them.

Tamar asserts her own agency by sending Judah a message—haker na, “acknowledge, please, whose seal, cord and staff these are?” Judah and his brothers had just deceived Jacob with the same formula (37:32): “acknowledge please, is this your son [Joseph’s technicolor] coat, or not?” This time Judah admits, “tzadkah mimeni, she’s more righteous than me.” Tamar gives birth to Peretz, ancestor of Boaz, who with Ruth becomes ancestor of David (and the messianic line).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (with outsize contributions from Jewish human rights lawyer and Nuremburg adviser Raphael Lemkin) came about just after the Holocaust, which underscored our need to always be upstanders, not bystanders. The same goes today, as necessary memes like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter remind us. Society’s enduring toxicity for women requires men to step up. Those who enjoy White privilege are duty-bound to dismantle racism. Straight, cis-gendered people must advocate on behalf of all LGBTQ people. This is the ongoing call of both Torah and human rights.

Truah’s Human Rights Shabbat text for this year, recalling how the rabbis of old turned Chanukah’s martial struggles into religious ones, cites the Sefat Emet (Shemini, 5641): “through hallowing ourselves in this world, and standing strong against wicked [individual] people and [social-political-macro] forces of evil, we can extend the flow of holiness in this world.”

T’ruah urges us to bring that “intersection of activism and holiness” into our day, as well, by sharing that synthesis with those around us, and with our communities. As a ten-time Human Rights Shabbat participant, I assure you, that intersection is always meaningful.

This Shabbat, this Chanukah, and always, let’s unite holiness and activism.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb serves Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD. He is chairperson of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and on the board of Interfaith Power and Light. 

In collaboration with T’ruah (of which rabbi Jessica has long been an active member) and other congregations around North America, the Little Minyan Kehillah annually host this meaningful service and actively engages with local and national human rights and social justice issues daily as intrinsic to what it means to be a vibrant Jewish community.

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Marking the Sacred and the Ordinary ~ The Cyclical Nature of Jewish Time

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This post was inspired by the first (5776), second (5777) and third (5778) editions of MISAVIV Hebrew Circular Calendar by deuteronomy press. You can purchase this beautiful 5778 calendar from the Little Minyan Kehillah; contact littleminyan@ littleminyan.org for more information.  The … Continue reading

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Biennial S’lichot Coffeehouse with Bill Cohen and Many Jewish Songwriters/Musicians you also know and love …

On Sunday, September 10th (the 19th of Elul), we began the last full week of the waning year of 5777. As Shabbat ends this week, we will celebrate Havdalah and bring in Leil S’lichot – a Night of Penitent Prayers that … Continue reading

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Preparing for a New Year ~ 5778 ~ with the Little Minyan Kehilla

You don’t need a ticket, an invitation, or even clarity of purpose … just an open heart and mind … join us and see. Click HERE for more information.

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Psalm 27 ~ a Bridge Between Confidence and Despair

During the Hebrew month of Elul ~ the last cycle of the moon before we enter a new year through the gates of the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) ~ Jewish practice is to do cheshbon ha’nefesh (a soul accounting). This opportunity is accompanied by twin kavannot (intentions) of loving self-compassion and exacting self-review. We are to carefully consider how we have spent the past year and determine which things we wish to change about our behavior, ways we intend to seek forgiveness from people we have wronged, how we will recalibrate and chart our course in life so as to align with the Sacred within and around us.

It is also a part of our mystical tradition that the Source of Blessing is very close at this time of year, as we prepare for these Days of Awe with critical analysis of who we have become and who we wish to be. “The King is in the Field,” according to tradition, a reference to ancient custom when a monarch approached a city and was greeted with pomp and ceremony once within the city walls, but when “in the field” was accessible and approachable by the common folk.

Each day of the month of Elul, our ancient wisdom tradition instructs us to sound the shofar ~ the piercing ancient sound of the ram’s horn that calls to a primal and soul-deep part of our being. And each day of Elul and through the Yamim Nora’im, we read Psalm 27. Rabbi Edward Feld, in his book, Joy, Despair, and Hope Reading Psalms describes Psalm 27 as “a bridge, forming an arc between confidence and despair.”

Recently I was asked by Faith In Public Life, a strategy center for the faith community advancing faith in the public square as a powerful force for justice, compassion and the common good, to share words of inspiration and and encouragement for people “doing the work” and feeling weary. FPL has been a wonderful convener of clergy here in central Ohio ~ bringing us together for monthly breakfasts to learn and strategize about important local and national issues like better cultural awareness and sensitivity and other training for law enforcement and sanctuary for long-time residents who face deportation.  

This has been a difficult year, as an American, to remain positive and energized in the face of anger, apathy, antipathy, and repeated assaults on the human bodies of the most vulnerable among us and on the ideologies of social and environmental justice. How do we keep doing the long hard work when it feels that strong forces are trying to bend back that arc of the moral universe we trust bends toward justice? We dig deep into our faith and wisdom traditions and those of our neighbors, colleagues, friends. We hold each other’s backs and stand beside the stranger to offer encouragement. And we pursue justice with courage and determination.

Below is an interpretive English translation of Psalm 27 by my rebbe (spiritual teacher), Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l (of blessed memory):

YaH, you are my Light, my Savior,
whom need I dread?
YaH, with You as my strong Protector
who can make me panic?
When hateful bullies gang up on me,
wanting to harass me,
to oppress and terrorize me —
they are the ones who stumble and fall.

Even if a gang surrounds me,
my heart is not weakened;
if a battle is joined around me
my trust in You is firm.
Only one thing do I ask of You, YaH,
just this alone do I seek:
I want to be at home with You, YaH,
All the days of my life;
I want to delight in seeing You,
when I come to visit You
in Your Temple.

You hide me in Your succah*
on a foul day;
You conceal me unseen in Your tent
and also raise me beyond
anyone’s reach.
And now, as You have held my head high,
despite the presence
of my powerful foes,
I prepare to celebrate and thrill,
singing and making music
to You, YaH!

Listen, YaH, to the sound of my cry
and, being kind, answer me.
My heart has said:
I turn to You,
Your Presence is what I beg for;
don’t hide Your Face from me.
Don’t just put me down,
You, who have been my Helper,
don’t abandon me, don’t forsake me,
God, my support.
Though father and mother have left me
You, YaH, will hold me securely.

Please teach me Your way
And guide me on the straight path;
discourage those who defame me,
False witnesses stood up against me,
belching out violence.
don’t let me become
the victim of my foes.

[I would not have survived]
If I had not hoped that I would yet see
YaH’s goodness fully alive on Earth.
So, friend, you too, hope to YaH.
Be sturdy!
And make strong your heart!
And most of all — keep hoping to YaH.
* harvest booth

Posted in ALEPH, Calendar, Hagim/Holidays, Human Rights, Liturgy, Reb Zalman, Spiritual Seeking, Tikkun Olam, Torah | Leave a comment

Wake Up. And Stay Awake.

These are the words of Hazzan Jessi Roemer, dear friend of LMKehilla’s Spiritual Leader Jessica Shimberg and are shared with the author’s express permission and blessings for a Sweet Shabbes. The photo is also that of the author who spent time this year in New Zealand with Bob the Rooster. She is also an amazing songwriter and her work can be heard and purchased (after Shabbat) here.

Wake up. And stay awake.

This is the unified command in both this week’s texts.

Since Tisha B’Av, our prophets in the Haftarah have been comforting us – “nahamu, nahamu, ami” (“comfort, comfort my people”) – as we remember the destruction of our ancient Temple and re-mourn the long-ago exile of our leaders. The prophets have been singing to us of a redemptive future, gently promising our shattered people that we will gain a new foundation covered in precious gems, and assuring us that our grandchildren will know peace.

And while there are still two more weeks of consolation coming in the Haftarah, this week is different from those previous: We are encouraged to rise from our mourning, to wake up and shake off the stupor of despair. It is from this week’s Haftarah that the Kabbalist poet Elazar ben Moshe Azikri borrowed the most rousing phrases for his Shabbat poem, “Lecha Dodi”: “Hitoreri, hitoreri” – “Wake up, wake up!” – “Uri Uri” – “Awake, awake” – “Livshi bigdei tifartech” – “Put on your robes of majesty” – “Hitna’ari Me’afar Kumi” – “Shake off the dust and get up!”

The message? Five weeks out from Tisha B’Av, it is time to rise from mourning and exile, to re-join the world of moral responsibility. Isaiah exhorts us: “Sovevu, sovevu, tzu mi sham” (“Turn around, turn around; depart from there”); “Do not touch impurity. Keep pure as you depart from there.” A second Exodus is imminent, he implies, and if we can get with the program, this time we will not leave the land of our oppressors in haste or in flight, but rather with God marching in front of us and guarding our back. It is time to wake up and re-join the living.

This week’s partner Torah portion, Shoftim, also heralds a new coming into consciousness for the People Israel. While the Haftarah has us emerging from a period of mourning and spiritual slumber after the Temple’s destruction, Shoftim telescopes us backward in time to a moment toward the end of our wandering in the desert, just before we are about to enter the land where the Temple will eventually be built. From his deathbed outside the land of Canaan, Moshe is instructing the people how to go about building a civil society once they are settled in one place.

The theme in this portion? Wake up. Act right. Don’t let anyone fall morally asleep — individuals (including, it is specified, non-male individuals), judges, priests, towns, nations, and especially kings. Don’t fall prey to greed, don’t take bribes, don’t worship other gods, respect the authority of civil and spiritual servants. Public servants must not overreach: Priests may not acquire land; kings may not amass riches in excess or lose physical sight of this teaching.

In the first few verses, we hear the command: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice pursue.” This is one of our richest slogans, often used as a source text for the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, our obligation to repair the world and fight for justice.

In the spirit of pursuing justice, Shoftim contains several specific instructions for how to govern fairly — some revolutionary even today, and some surprisingly decent by the standards of the time:

  • Create an undiscriminating legal system;
  • Establish a meticulous process for inquiry in determining guilt;
  • Never rely on the account of one witness alone;
  • Always protect trees, even on the land of your enemy;
  • Take collective responsibility for an anonymous crime;
  • Offer a neighboring city the option of peaceful surrender before conquering it;
  • Do not deploy soldiers who have ambivalent hearts or who stand to die without ever having harvested their land or married their betrothed;
  • Establish and evenly distribute a proportional number of sanctuary cities to the total amount of land possessed by the nation.
  • I repeat: Establish evenly dispersed sanctuary cities throughout the nation, to where accused innocents from anywhere can flee and be protected from persecution.

There is much here that we today find morally just and imperative. But “tzedek,” like “justice” in English, does not automatically imply compassion; Shoftim also contains harsh, heartless laws and inhumane repercussions:

  • The command to slaughter everyone in the area where the People of Israel will live, lest they be influenced by strangers’ ways;
  • The instruction to loot nearby towns, impose forced labor on human beings and take them as property;
  • The insistence upon public stoning for the transgression of worshipping other gods.

In fact, rather than implying a global, moral justice, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” in the context of ancient society-building, seems more to mean that the people should steadfastly adhere to a strict system of law and order, cause and effect, transgression and punishment. “Justice” here is pretty much a set of laws defined to maintain the order of monotheism and the political dominance of the People of Israel in the land which they are about to conquer.

Fortunately, the more universal applications of justice and governance – those on the first list – shine out at us across centuries, despite the archaic and brutal context in which they arose, a context in which all the things on the second list were still acceptable. But I don’t advocate glossing over that second list, because it is to the danger of this: a narrow definition of justice, or the execution of it without compassion – the underbelly of tzedek, if you will – that we must also stay awake.

For this reason, this Shabbat I plan to chant the part about public stoning in Eicha trop, the melody of Lamentations that we chant on Tisha B’av. This is how, after reminding myself, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” I will lament the cruel behaviors that are also our human inheritance, and that we still haven’t unlearned, thousands of years later. This is how I will assert that:

We must not only be meticulous in determining guilt; we must be judicious in defining transgression to begin with, create humane structures that don’t funnel people toward incarceration, and make room for as much forgiveness and re-integration as humanly possible.

We must not only claim collective responsibility for crimes on our soil that we did not witness; we must take collective responsibility for the crimes we committed when we first came to this soil, and continue to commit, collectively.

We must not only approach other groups in peace; we must try to change the way we see them until we can see ourselves in them. And we must love ourselves. This way we will not be able to objectify, dehumanize, or demonize anyone.

This Shabbat, I will interpret the call from my ancestors through these pages, and from my predecessors through their essays, their activism, their art, their physical work – to wake up, again and again. And when the week begins, I will try, again and again, to convert that “awakeness” into practice.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dedicated to the life and memory of Marguerite Rosenthal, who loved her musical and activist Jewish heritage, and who dedicated her whole life to waking up and pursuing justice in the global, moral sense. And to her son, Ben, daughter-in-law Nancy, and grandchildren Leah and Ezra, who are this week emerging from their first year of mourning her death. May they be comforted – nahamu, nahamu – and may Marguerite’s legacy live on in us: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.

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