A Teaching for This Week’s Torah Reading: Beshalach Devar Torah

If I asked you to imagine being inside the story of this week’s Torah reading, when the Hebrew slaves were liberated, then chased by Pharoah’s army with chariots, most likely you wouldn’t have a clue what it would been like. Of course, some among us are Holocaust survivors or have experienced other life-threatening ordeals – and these images may seem personally relevant. But most of us have avoided the terror of enslavement and flight-under pursuit.

Yet, many of us have come through difficult ordeals – relationship crises, break-ups, job loss, financial crisis, or illness – and we have stood in that moment of terror between the narrow place of suffering and the unknown future. 

Moses faced his people’s frightened faces as they stood at the water, with Pharoah in pursuit. He tried to silence their cries by insisting they summon faith from within their hearts:

Exodus 14:13 But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!”

 I don’t know about you, but I know this wouldn’t have calmed my fears. In fact, Moses’ rebuke would have made me more afraid.  Stand and wait for deliverance? Really?!   I might be wondering which would be worse: drowning in the sea or succumbing to Pharoah’s violent fury?

The Torah text goes on to imagine the Divine reaction to Moses’ plea for faith:

 15 Then the Holy One said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. 16 And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.

Clearly, the people needed action.  They needed to be empowered to move forward, feeling Divine support within themselves. The rabbis of the Talmud understood that we must act – sometimes taking a leap of faith.  They perceived a break in the text, filled-in with the legend of Nachshon ben Aminadav, reputed to be have been the leader of the tribe of Judah. Nachshon was the quintessential “first adopter” – he watched Moses awaiting God’s redemption and realized that the people needed to act. So he jumped into the water. Only then did Moses understand that his role was to raise his staff, leading the people across the receded basin of the sea.

At that moment, the wilderness ahead was not frightening. Even though the dry, barren desert would soon be another terrifying frontier – what would they eat or drink? — the chapters of wilderness were yet to unfold. At the sea, all they could do was move forward to the safety of dry land.  There was no turning back.

When survival — whether physical, spiritual, emotional – is at stake, only a leap of faith can propel us forward. No matter what challenges may await us, redemption from danger or despair is a process that begins with the heart of Nachshon. When we realize that we cannot afford to wait as Moses did, we open a world of possibilities for ourselves.

 We all know that change is hard. Stepping forward, diving into the waters of uncertainty, we cross the threshold of the most difficult moment of all. Once on the other side, we will be strengthened by the faith we learn in that dive. We learn that there is no turning back — and we don’t need to try. Fortunately, we discover that we have boundless capacity for changing our fortunes for ourselves. This is the foundation of faith.

Our world is changing rapidly around us. No doubt some of us have endured ordeals, and others of us may yet face imposing waters.  Nachshon should be echoing in our heads. If we stand still, we face greater danger than if we take the leap forward.  We can, in fact we must dive into the future.

A Talmudic discussion of this text imagines that the tribes were bickering as the terrified people faced the sea – who would go first? If it had not been for Nachshon, the bickering would have brought on the people’s destruction.  The dangers to us as individuals and as a people are not only external. We must pull together with respect and resolve.  Nachshon came to teach that there is no future unless we face it together.  The future is in our hands; we are “atidim” – those who are seizing the moment and shaping the path forward.

This is a lesson for families, communities, our nation, our people and all of humanity.  Thanks to Nachshon, we can overcome our obstacles and our fears to create a redemptive future together.

Image {This teaching was presented at the opening event honoring the Atidim, those who have invested in the future of the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life of Greater Metrowest, New Jersey, 1/8/14.}

 

 

 

 

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This was originally published on the Rabbis Without Borders Blog of myjewishlearning.com

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/2013/12/16/sadness-anger-and-love/

800px-Sandy_Hook_Memorial_12-26.jpg-largeOn Friday, December 14, 2012, I heard the news in the car. Shots were being fired in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Little information was yet known.

I was seized by a sick feeling of sadness, worry, and a familiar anger that has unfortunately been all too frequent – anger that our country remains gripped by a culture of violence and politics that glorifies guns.

Amidst deep worry for the people of Sandy Hook, another fear took hold. A dear cousin of mine who is a lower-grade elementary school teacher lives in that community. We had just visited over the Thanksgiving weekend. I didn’t recall the name of the school where my cousin teaches, so I went into a panic. I couldn’t reach my cousin by phone and tried to find the faculty list on the Sandy Hook school’s website, but it was down in the midst of the crisis. My sister called me in panic – we felt so helpless without any information.

Hours later my cousin called. Its turns out he teaches in a nearby town. His cell phone held dozens of voicemails and text messages from worried friends and family — he had been teaching, not using his phone. We breathed in a deep and grateful sense of relief.

Then I felt guilty for our feelings of relief. In deep sadness, I watched the scenes on TV, grieving for the 20 children and six adults; such unspeakable losses. These families would not ever experience the sense of relief that my family enjoyed. I viscerally recall the terror generated by this horrible violence. It could have been any of us, or our children. For some, it was their children; we feel such deep sympathy for them.

Where is the rage? What has happened to our country and our world?  Why do mentally ill people not get the treatment they need? Why do people feel they need these instruments of death?

So much needs to fixed: mental health awareness and treatment; violence in our culture: movies, video games and TV; a 24/7 media culture that sensationalizes, to the point of (unintentionally) glorifying perpetrators – especially to “would-be” committers of the next shooting; and a political culture that is bought and sold by the gun lobby.

We are out of control. A late 19th-century prophetic European social critic, Max Nordau, wrote of his fears for society’s fall into “public drug peddling, random shootings, graphically violent popular entertainment, and a massive reduction of the human attention span” (Degeneration, 1895). We have been warned; we know the problems. It is time to fix them.

The people of Newtown have asked for privacy and quiet at this sad first anniversary.  Still, The New York Times, reporting on the anniversary, offered insight into the ongoing process of grief and healing in Newtown:

“Ms. Lewis, Jesse’s mother, begins every day by pulling on three or four or five of her Jesse bracelets before heading out. The bracelets read, ‘Nurturing, Healing, Love’ — three words her son had written on their kitchen chalkboard shortly before 12/14. The phrase became the title of her book about her son and the aftermath of the shooting, published in October. ‘Anyone who needs a pick-me-up or seems nice, I always offer a bracelet,’ she said.”

The Torah teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The commandment is not to feel love; it is a commandment to action. We have the courage – this is America! We must use it – to infuse our world with nurturing, healing and love.

 

This post was originally published on the blog for Rabbis Without Borders of myjewishlearning.com:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/2013/11/17/the-times-they-are-changing/

Jewish Star of David, at Magen David Jewish Congregation of Bradley Beach, New Jersey

It used to be that most Jews affiliated with a synagogue. My parents’ generation supported their synagogues and the organized Jewish community because they believed we were “one people”, responsible for each other. They honored their congregations’ rabbis and looked to them for guidance.  Yet, these norms have now evolved into entirely new realities, with changing values and assumptions.

My young adult children live in a very different world from the one in which I was raised. Few of their generation choose to be members of synagogues, and they dislike rabbis who lecture them about what to believe or do. But they are just the crest of the wave that includes many of my boomer generation, who increasingly reject commitment to synagogues. They respect rabbis only when they inspire and serve them in intensely personal and meaningful ways, often ‘in the moment.’

It used to be that rabbis who served Jews independently (derisively called “rent-a-rabbis”) were not highly respected within the community.  Yes, some individuals do call themselves rabbis yet lack communally recognized rabbinic ordination or appropriate knowledge and expertise. Yet, it is also the case that some very fine rabbis of upstanding credentials and experience are now functioning independently, serving unaffiliated Jews in a variety of ways.

Some rabbis consider this to be unfair competition with syn

agogues. Rightly so, they feel that Judaism is not a commodity that is bought and sold – it is a commitment to being part of the Jewish people, found within community.

The times, they are a’changin,” Bob Dylan sang:

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

Your sons and your daughters

Are beyond your command

Your old road is

Rapidly agin’

Please get out of the new one

If you can’t lend your hand

For the times they are a-changin’.

Synagogues will certainly remain essential for Jewish community. Along the way innovative leaders are creating new modes of Jewish belonging and inspirational spiritual experience for the Jewish people and fellow travelers.

Now rabbis who are providing personalized, independent rabbinic services are spiritual leaders who are meeting people where they are to help them find Jewish fulfillment and connections. With skilled rabbis helping Jews and fellow travelers to find their way within the Jewish community, so much more is possible.  With professional rabbis offering this service to individuals and fellow travelers, there is room to build on the pride that 94% of surveyed Jews express at just being Jewish.

That is why I am excited to be going independent. Amidst Jewish communal hand wringing about the dramatic decline in affiliation rates, I am shifting into another gear as a rabbi. It is time to teach, guide, facilitate, officiate and lead from outside the box.

I will soon launch “Deborah’s Palm, A Center for Jewish Learning and Experiences.” I will also seek ways to collaborate with rabbis and communities within my area wherever possible. We are all in it together.  “The times, they are a’changin”.  The Jewish people and our fellow travelers need us.

 

 

 

 

Late yesterday afternoon as I sat in my living room quietly reading, I looked outside at the clear blue sky, happy for the autumn sunshine. But my thoughts turned to the Monday afternoon one year ago when we stayed home as Hurricane Sandy bore down on our area. Recalling the ordeal of downed trees and no electricity or phones in our house for the next two weeks, I was grateful for the help of friends and community.

hurricane sandy tree on house 2012

I remembered that we were inconvenienced, but not devastated. Just up the street from us two houses were crushed by fallen trees, as were others in surrounding neighborhoods, but our area was still largely intact. Coastal and shore areas in New Jersey and New York were not so lucky. Many of us have helped to clean up and rebuild after the destruction of homes, businesses, and some entire communities along the shore.  I wish I had been able to do more.

After the surge of memories began yesterday, I was struck by the under-mentioned impact of the hurricane on the poor.  Those with means could recover – many people left town to the comfort of unaffected areas. The privileged had insurance to cover losses, or the capacity to absorb the costs of repair. Yet the brunt of the suffering was borne by the elderly and infirmed and disabled, and those who didn’t have the insurance or the means to repair or rebuild.

Sandy was one more reminder that the divide between the rich and the poor in America is growing.  So too is the callousness of too many politicians who seem intent on enriching those already privileged while cutting off so many who can’t pay lobbyists or make huge campaign contributions.

Today, on this anniversary of the New York/New Jersey regions’ calamitous hurricane, I want to offer thanks for one politician who seems to be getting it right. As reported on the front page of the NY Times,Ohio Governor Defies G.O.P. With Defense of Social Safety Net”, Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio is defying the right wing in his state by finding ways to protect the poor. The article reports that “Few have gone further than Mr. Kasich in critiquing his party’s views on poverty programs, and last week he circumvented his own Republican legislature and its Tea Party wing by using a little-known state board to expand Medicaid to 275,000 poor Ohioans under President Obama’s health care law.”  Kasich said,  “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor,” he said, sitting at the head of a burnished table as members of his cabinet lingered after a meeting. “That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”

Righteousness is alive and well.  The neighbor-to-neighbor help after the storm, wonderful as it was, may not have been sufficient to relieve the suffering of the neediest for the long-term. But compassion can prevail and guide our society, if we demand it of our leaders and ourselves. In honor of those who have worked so hard to create a more just democracy, I pray that this compassion will spread, from governor to governor, from mayor to mayor, from community to community.

 

 

It can be tiring to hear snarky “jokes” about New Jersey from folks who think it is funny to make fun of the Garden State.  I think New Jersey is a great place to live, for many reasons.  Today I am not just happy to live in New Jersey, I am filled with pride. Today we are not the butt of jokes — this day was the first day of legal same-sex marriage.  Today was also the day that Governor Chris Christie dropped the appeal that would have once again challenged the rights of gays and lesbians to wed their beloveds in this great state.  Thank you, Governor Christie, for letting the people decide. And thank you, New Jersey, for arriving at this place of justice.

I was thrilled to officiate at the wedding of a New Jersey couple who rushed to wed in New York just after the defeat of DOMA in the summer.  They were anxious to sanctify their 3 decades plus as a family, and to reap the legal benefits that had been withheld for all this time.   Now the floodgates are opening for gay and lesbian couples in New Jersey — it’s wedding season!

Today there is much to celebrate.  To all of the couples who can now be counted as equals to their straight family and friends, accorded the same legal and cultural recognition that others have long enjoyed — we wish Mazal Tov — Congratulations!

This post was originally published on the website myjewishlearning.com, on the blog for Rabbis Without Borders:

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rabin-legacy

The yahrzeit for slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, passed with scant notice here a few days ago on the 12th of Heshvan. November 4 will mark the date on the secular calendar, now eighteen years later. Perhaps by then we will have returned Rabin’s memory to its proper place in our discourse and our prayers.

In the days after the assassination, the Whitman poem “O Captain, My Captain!”, set to music in Hebrew, became the theme for those who mourned Rabin’s death at the hands of an extremist  Jew.  The poem had originally been written to mourn the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  The shock of that moment, just when Israel seemed to be on the brink of peace with the Palestinians, signaled another painful block in the road.

In 1999 the Prime Minister Ehud Barak remembered Rabin at a memorial in Oslo:  I still mourn the death of Yitzhak, my commander and mentor. And I tell you, Yitzhak, that you are fallen dead, but your spirit and will are stronger than ever. So today, I pledge to you, Yitzhak, to all our neighbors, and to the whole world – to travel the course you charted and to finish the journey you’ve led towards security and peace.  Only then, when we reach this destination, will we proclaim, in the words of Walt Whitman,  “O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done; The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;  O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells; Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills.”   And here today I bring to all of you the prayer that we will see in the not too distant future the fulfillment of the vision of Psalms about Jerusalem: “May peace be within your walls, tranquility within your palaces.”   This is our hope. This is our responsibility.

Peace would be costly, including withdrawal from most of the territory occupied in the 1967 Six Day War, a painful retrenchment.  It would mean facing the issue of Jerusalem, with swaths of Arab East Jerusalem being open to negotiation.

Rabin brought much of Israel together under the banner of peace. The first Intifada had led many  Israelis to understand that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza carried unsustainable costs. Compromises were necessary. But in the ensuing years, and the second Intifada, many Israelis grew to despair that the Palestinians could be trusted to make peace.

So many attempts, so many failures.  Another round of talks have brought out the optimists, the pragmatists, the pessimists and the naysayers yet again. I reside in the realm of pragmatic optimisim.

It must be the case that peace is possible.

Now, 18 years after Rabin’s murder, where are we?  Are we any closer to peace? Does the legacy of Rabin’s courage and leadership linger and inspire as he did before his violent end?

On the night of Rabin’s assassination, he was carrying the words to the song “Shir Lashalom | A Song for Peace” in his jacket pocket – it was the theme of the huge peace rally in Tel Aviv that night.   After the shooting, the bloody paper illustrated the wound to the prayer, and peace itself.

In memory of our Captain, Yitzhak Rabin, may his memory be for a blessing, I pray for a renewal of faith in the possibility for peace. Let us sing Shir Lashalom as our prayer once again. Rabin taught us to reach beyond our despair, our hurts and angers, and even our realistic doubts, and to create the reality that gives full expression to the dream of our people: to live in peace as a free people in our land.

Shir Lashalom | A Song for Peace

Let the sun rise, the morning shine,

The finest of prayers can bring us back no more.

And he whose flame has been extinguished,

Who’s buried in the ground,

No bitter wails will wake him, will him restore.

No one can bring us back from the dark of the grave.

Here, neither the joy of victory

Nor paeans from the brave can help.

Just sing therefore a song to peace

Don’t whisper prayers.

 

Far better, sing a song to peace,

And sing it way out loud.

Let the sun in through the flowers.

Don’t look back, let the fallen rest.

Raise your eyes in hope, not through the barrel of a gun.

Sing a song to love and not to victories.

Don’t say “a day will come” – go bring that day yourself,

For it is not a dream.

In all the squares, ring out a song for peace.

 

This was first posted in the blog of Rabbis Without Borders on the myjewishlearning.com website.

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/2013/09/22/seekers-and-unaffiliated-an-opportunity/

I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being  professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.

And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in

labshul 5774 torah service YK

New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.

That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.

Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.

We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.

I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation.  Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.

The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their  support.  It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.

(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)