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Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

This is an article I wrote for the Rabbi’s Corner column in the JQ Baltimore November newsletter. We must continue to speak out for LGBTQ rights, especially during these turbulent times!

Freedom From Want is the title of the iconic Norman Rockwell painting that depicts an extended family sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Gathered family members smile and lean forward as the matriarch, appropriately dressed in white apron and blue patterned dress, gently lowers the meal’s centerpiece, a giant turkey, to the table. Rockwell captures in the painting the sense of family intimacy and connection that Thanksgiving is all about. His chosen title for the picture conveys another theme of the holiday, namely the gratitude we feel for living in America, a land of freedom and plenty.

The painting is actually one in a series of four ‘freedom’ paintings that Rockwell worked on and completed in 1943. Freedom of Worship, Freedom From Fear, and Freedom of Speech are the titles of the other three pictures. The themes were classic American motifs, all of them driving forces in a common American identity that kept the country united during the turbulent years of the Second World War. Rockwell’s great talent was in capturing the intimate moment that was simultaneously universal. We see ourselves sitting around that table, or worshipping in those pews, or listening respectfully to the man speaking, or tucking those children in to bed.

Nevertheless, Rockwell’s paintings come at their topics through a traditional lens. The characters he paints are all white, the families all traditional, grandparents and parents with their children and grandchildren. If the values Rockwell highlights in the paintings are traditional American values, the scenes are also traditional in nature, lacking a sense of the diversity of modern American life. How would Rockwell have painted those scenes today, in the United States of 2018? To ask that question in another way, who will be seated around our Thanksgiving table this year?

On the surface this is a simple question, but to members of the LGBTQ community it is filled with meaning. Can I sit at my family’s Thanksgiving table and be completely comfortable in my own skin? Am I accepted and respected for who I truly am? Can I give thanks this year during Thanksgiving, our holiday of gratitude, for the advancement and expansion of LGBTQ rights in our country? I’ve always felt that Thanksgiving is the most Jewish of all American holidays, with its focus on food and gratitude, two major Jewish concerns. May we be mindful of the identities of all those with whom we will celebrate this Thanksgiving. May we be grateful for the freedoms we are blessed to have. And may we be determined to do the work so those freedoms may be extended to every person

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A Shabbat of Solidarity

Following is a text version of remarks I made yesterday at our Shabbat of Solidarity service.  I am deeply grateful that over 800 people of many different faiths came together to honor the memories of those whose lives were taken away in Pittsburgh.  It was a powerful morning of memory, prayer, and hope.

     We Jews are well practiced in the exercise of memory, both individually and communally.  As individuals we observe the yartzeits of those we have loved and lost, we recite the Yizkor service four times a year, we visit the cemetery, placing our hands on the stones.  As a community we commemorate tragic events from our past, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, Tisha B’Av, the day the Temple was destroyed in ancient times in Jerusalem.  Even our holidays are often tinged with bitter memories – the slavery of Egypt that we remember on Passover, or the persecution and anti-Semitism of Purim and Hanukkah.  

     And we gather today in part to remember, to look back to exactly one week ago, to reflect on the tragic events that took place in Pittsburgh, to recall the victims, to read their names aloud, and to honor them.  And so we have done.  What happened in Pittsburgh was unprecedented in the history of the American Jewish community, and we know from our long experience that part of our task now as Jews will be to bear the weight of that memory as we carry it forward.

     As we do that in the months and years ahead it is important to say that remembering in Judaism has a purpose.  It is not only about the past, about looking back – it is also, and in some ways more so, about the future and looking forward.  This morning’s Torah portion records the death of both Sarah and Abraham, but the primary focus of the portion is on the future, on finding a wife for Isaac so that there will be a new generation to carry the covenant forward.  We are told three times in Genesis ‘vayizkor Elohim’ – that God remembered – God remembered Noah, and brought him to dry land.  God remembered Abraham, and then rescued his nephew Lot from the destruction of Sodom.  And God remembered Rachel, and gave her a child.  In each case God’s act of remembering was for the sake of the future, and of life.

     Which is why I am grateful today that we are also celebrating two events that are about the future.  I pulled Holden aside after services ended last night, and I told him that although he might not have even realized it, the very fact that he stood before the congregation, a young man, and proudly chanted the kiddish, and again this morning proudly was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah – in and of itself that helps us to heal, it gives us hope for a bright Jewish future, it reminds us that there is a next generation, that they will carry our communal memories forward, while finding meaning in their Judaism everyday.  

     And Lauren and Jason, our auffruff couple.  One week from tonight they will stand together under the huppah, a moment that is about faith and the future they will build together in their years ahead as husband and wife.  You cannot help but feel a sense of hope for the future when you see a groom and a bride walk down the aisle.  A new Jewish family has formed, a new generation committing to live a Jewish life and to create a Jewish home, as it was for Isaac and Rebecca so long ago, the love that they shared, the life they made, and the family they brought into the world. 

     And then the baby naming the Cantor and I officiated at last Sunday morning.  A beautiful baby girl, fussing and cooing and squirming in her parents arms, as she received her Hebrew name and was formally entered into the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  Her middle name in Hebrew is Aliza, which means joy.  And we were naming this child one day after Pittsburgh.  Almost exactly 24 hours.  But there was joy – in that child, for her family, in that moment, and in our hearts.  And there is nothing that is more abut the future than the naming of a baby.  Because that is the name by which she’ll be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.  That is the name that one day will be written in her ketubah, that is the name that will mark some of the most significant and sacred moments of her life, and some of the most significant and sacred moments of the future of our community. 

     We will make that future together.  Bearing our sadness, remembering our losses, honoring memory, but at the very same time walking forward with hope and strength, with resilience and dignity, with determination to make a better and safer and more tolerant world for all.  We will mourn our losses, as we have this past week, as we always do, but we will celebrate life, we will welcome babies, we will dance with brides and grooms, we will rejoice with young men and women who are called to the Torah for the very first time, we will celebrate our holidays, light the candles of our menorahs in a few weeks, and sit at our seders in the spring, and recite the words of our ancient prayers on this Shabbat of Solidarity and every Shabbat.  

     And so may this truly be a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace for us, for Jews everywhere, for the world.  May we dedicate today to the memory of those who lost their lives last week, but also to the future that we will build together – in the months and years that are ahead – God willing a future of hope and peace and dignity for all people in all places – 

May that truly be God’s will!

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The Healer of Broken Hearts

This morning I named a baby, a beautiful little girl welcomed with deep joy into her family and community.  It was a simple rabbinic moment.  Working with my Cantor I spoke of covenant and history, read the appropriate prayers, blessed the child.  She cooed and fussed a bit, squirmed in her parents arms, happily slurped some sweet wine, the taste of which made her suddenly widen her eyes.

It is the very day after one of the greatest tragedies in American Jewish history.  Eleven dead in a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.  There is much to do.  Emails are flying through the community, phone calls are coming in, plans are being made for various memorial services and vigils, and an upcoming communal Shabbat of solidarity.  There are security questions to be weighed and considered.  But what could be more important than naming a baby?  What could be more meaningful than bringing a new child into the community, what could be more significant than giving her a Hebrew name?  Am Yisrael Chai! we sing – the Jewish people live!  There is no greater proof of that than the little baby I held in my arms today.

What kind of world will she grow up in?  Will it be safe? Tolerant?  Will it be kind and gentle?  It must be.  It is our responsibility to make that world into a reality, to build our communities and cultures so one day children will not know of hatred and prejudice, of violence or despair.  It is our responsibility to value kindness and trust, love and joy, determination and courage, and hope.  To espouse ideas of inclusion and peace, of tolerance and diversity, for all people in all places at all times.

Darkness will always give way to light.  Of this I am convinced.  The very existence of the Jewish people makes this clear, our thousands of years of history all too often scarred by cruelty, hatred, and violence.   And yet generation after generation we sing and celebrate, we name our children and bring them into the ancient covenant between God and Israel,   we escort our brides and grooms to the huppah when they marry.  Our elders speak of sweet kugels and warm memories of faith and family.  Our children celebrate b’nai mitzvahs ceremonies, surrounded by family and friends.  We go to shul, we learn, we pray, we grow.  We do live – with vibrancy and faith and loyalty to our people and our God.  Am Yisrael Chai!

The Psalmist writes that God is ‘the healer of shattered hearts, and the binder of wounds.’  We must be and do the same.  We must work to heal the hearts we know are broken, to bind the wounds that must be mended, to tend to those who need our help, and in doing so, to push back the darkness and the hate and the fear.  We can do it together, as communities and families, as congregations and organizations, as Jews.

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Sacred Language

One good deed leads to another good deed, while one sin leads to another sin. (Mishnah Avot, 4:2)

The above rabbinic maxim has often been on my mind of late.  It captures the idea that one good thing commonly leads to another good thing, while the opposite is also true – a destructive action frequently sets off a series of disturbing events.  This is true about our actions.  For example, the telling of a single lie often begins an extended process of telling multiple lies.  Conversely, a person who gets involved with charitable work will discover how good that work feels, and become more and more involved.  ‘A mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, a sin leads to another sin.’

The same is true of the language we use.  Destructive, hateful, and hurtful language leads to more and more destructive language, and potentially to destructive and harmful action.  It is no coincidence that as the midterm elections loom, and the political rhetoric grows more and more heated, a series of pipe bombs have been discovered in the mail boxes of well known figures on the left.  As I write this it is not yet clear whether the bombs were functional or not, but the point remains the same – hateful and hostile talk will lead to destructive action.  Sin causes sin.  With the President’s constant use of divisive and hateful language, both in the tweets that he sends so frequently and the stump speech he is currently using on the campaign trail, is it any wonder that someone decided to translate his words into actions?  How can we be surprised?  Once you cross the line with words you don’t have to go much further to get to that place of violent action.  After all, you’ve already crossed the line.

Jonathan Merritt, an occasional writer for the Atlantic, recently published an op ed in the NY Times about the gradual diminishment of what he called ‘God talk’ in our culture today.  If you track the column down and read it you’ll find that he is mostly writing about his God, the Christian God, but his point is well taken.  Our language has become coarse, our discourse uncivil, and our ability to voice disagreement respectfully almost non-existent.  Words like grace, kindness, sacrifice, patience, modesty, sacred, and holy are all words that often come up in faith oriented conversations.  We need those words today as much as, if not more, than ever.

Judaism has long believed that what you say can make an impact on what you think and feel.  The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish is a prime example.  This prayer, a litany of praises of God, is recited by those who have suffered the loss of a loved one.  An odd choice, when you actually stop to think about it.  Or is it?  Perhaps the idea is that the constant praising of God through the recitation of the prayer will over time enable a person to return to a place of faith, and to reclaim a sense of God’s greatness and presence.

I would argue it is the same for the language we use every day.  Lets talk more about modesty and kindness, about grace and justice, about sacrifice and patience, about how we experience the sacred in our lives.  The old saying is a rising tide lifts all boats.  One good deed leads to another.  We can say the same about sacred words.

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Shofar

The following will appear as the Torah column in this week’s Jewish Times:

     There is a favorite photograph of mine, dated from 1980, in black and white, that depicts Rabbi Mark Loeb z’’l standing on the bima of Beth El, dressed in his High Holy Day robes.  He holds a long and elegant shofar to his lips, its twists resting in his extended hand.  He is surrounded by a large group of children, probably four or five years old.  The young faces are turned upward towards the Rabbi expectantly, and I’ve always imagined that he is just about to sound the tekiah, the ancient clarion call of Jewish ritual and lore.

     There are certain symbols and sounds in Jewish life that speak straight to the heart.  The sight of the ark opening, revealing the Torah resting in austere dignity.  The sound of the opening notes of Kol Nidre.  The melody of the Mah Nishtana.  And, without question, the sound of the shofar. These are touchstone Jewish experiences, sights and sounds that we feel in our souls as much as see or hear.  They connect us to our ancient history and  also to shared family moments.  They remind us of parents and grandparents, of family seders and new years begun with promise and hope.  

     In our tradition, with its thousands of years of accumulated wisdom, the shofar is one of the oldest of all rituals.  As the Israelites wandered in the wilderness they used the shofar’s tekiah as a mustering call, but also as a source of inspiration, an untapped well of strength and hope during difficult times.  It is sounded during the most dramatic moments of Jewish history.  The Torah teaches that when Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to commune with God the people could hear the sound of the shofar growing louder and louder.  And in 1967, when Israeli paratroopers fought their way to the Western Wall and regained control of the Old City of Jerusalem, one of the first things they did after touching their hands to the stones was to sound the shofar.

     And of course we sense in the shofar the story of the first Jew, Avraham Avinu, Abraham our ancestor, as told in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera.  In a desperate moment of his life, as he struggles with understanding how to fulfill God’s will, it is the ram, with its symbolic horns caught in a thicket, that becomes the sacrifice instead of Abraham’s son Isaac.  The shofar still calls to us today, reminding us of Abraham’s struggle and our own, lived through the lens of Jewish history and within the structure of Jewish life.IMG_0059

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Imperfections (Superman vs. Spiderman)

     There is a traditional debate about the very first verse of this morning’s Torah portion, and at the heart of the debate is the question of the quality of Noah’s character.  The verse tells us נח איש תמים היה בדורותיו – Noah was righteous man, in his generation.  That can be interpreted in two ways – he was righteous – even in a generation where no one else was!  Or you could understand that to mean ‘in his generation he was righteous!’ – but in another generation, maybe not so much!

     The truth is there is evidence for both sides of the argument.  He was clearly righteous.  God chose Noah from among all the other people on earth to warn him about the flood.  He listens to God’s commands, he builds the ark, he guides his family and the animals into a post-diluvian world, a world after the destruction of the flood.  All righteous behaviors, all proof of the quality of Noah’s character.  

     But Noah also had some problematic moments.  He is the patriarch of a family that seems to have some serious issues.  He drinks to the extent that it has a serious and negative impact on his life.  And perhaps most troubling of all, Noah never warns other people about what is about to happen.  Nor does he challenge God in terms of God’s plans to destroy the earth.  We are waiting for Noah’s Abraham moment – the moment when he says to God “I don’t agree with this, it is wrong!”  Or “Are you telling me no one else on the earth is worth saving?  Save someone else, too!”  But that moment never arrives.  

     Knowing what you know now about Noah, both the good and the bad, the pluses and the minuses, lets take a quick vote.  You will have two choices, please only vote once.  Your choices will be that Noah was purely righteous, regardless of his generation, or that he was a flawed person, and was only considered righteous because everyone else in his generation was worse.  OK – how many of you would say Noah was purely righteous?  And how many of you would say Noah was fairly flawed, and only righteous when compared with others who were worse?

     Now let me ask another question – of those two Noahs, which do you prefer?

     I have to say the I actually prefer the flawed Noah, and in fact I think it is the flawed Noah who is more in line with the general way that biblical characters are presented.  If you think about any other biblical character – from Moses to Abraham to Sarah to King David and on and on, any other major character, you don’t have to look too far to find significant flaws.  Moses struggles with anger issues, let alone the fact that he kills another man in his youth.  Abraham is unaware of the dynamics in his own home that are tearing his family apart.  Sarah is jealous and hostile towards Hagar.  David is manipulative, steals another man’s wife, and ultimately arranges for that man to be killed.  These characters are not only flawed, not only imperfect, but deeply so.  And Noah is right in line with all of them.

     But let me tell why I actually prefer that.  And to do that I would like to shift genres for a moment, and talk about comic books.  (Just another from of literature!)  I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and I always preferred Marvel comics to DC comics.  DC was the line with? –  Superman and Batman and the Flash and Wonder Woman.  And Marvel had? –  the X-Men and Spiderman and the Fantastic 4 and the Avengers.  The symbol of DC comics was Superman.  Superman was perfect – תמים היה בדורותיו – perfect in his generation and every generation.  He was impervious to harm, he had strength beyond measure, he could fly through the air, he had x-ray vision.  

     But the symbol of Marvel comics was Spiderman.  Spiderman was stronger than the average person, and faster, but he was by no means impervious.  He didn’t have X-ray vision, he couldn’t fly – he had to use those web cartridges taped to his wrists, which would occasionally run out.  Superman was noble, moral, ethical, never had a doubt as to why he was doing what he was doing, never had a doubt about anything. 
Spiderman was filled with doubts.  Doubts about whether he should even use his powers.  He worried, he failed, he dropped out of school, and then struggled to hold on to a job, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend.

     And as a kid I looked at Superman, and I couldn’t relate one bit.  Perfect, I think, is boring.  But also perfect is not me.  But Spiderman, with his doubts and his struggles, with his failures and foibles, that was the kind of hero to whom I could relate.  I knew I would never climb walls, or swing from webs on skyscrapers.  But I also knew I would fail, there would be moments when it wouldn’t work out, I knew my character needed work.  Spiderman was my guy!  

     And that is why I liked the flawed Noah.  That is why it has always made sense to me that the Bible’s heroes are mistake prone and emotional, that they struggle with jealousy and anger, that they sometimes  – maybe even often – don’t treat one another well, that they repeatedly fail to understand what God wants of them and to follow God’s commands.  If I opened up the Torah and every character was perfect, completely moral and ethical, righteous and just, kind and wise – go through you list – I would say who are these people?  They are not my people, and they are not like me.  But when I see them struggle and fail, when I read about Moses’ self-doubt, or Abraham’s insensitivty, or Noah’s selfishness – I say boy, that looks awfully familiar.  And when I see myself in the text and in those characters I  can not only relate to them, I can also learn from them.

     So in Moses’ spiritual growth I can see hope for myself and a path to follow.  In Abraham’s deep faith I can find inspiration.  And through Noah’s story I can understand in a deeper way what it means to face the difficult challenges of life with determination and courage.  

     That is why we’ve been reading these stories for some three thousand years.  May we come to them again and again, in this new year and every year, seeing in their heroes our own lives and struggles and flaws, and also the potential we all have to grow in soul, and to live with courage and faith.

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R E S P E C T

The new issue of Rolling Stone just arrived in the mail (am I the only rabbi in the country with a lifetime subscription to Rolling Stone?!) and Aretha Franklin is on the cover.  A gorgeous shot of her, probably from when she was in her late 20s or early 30s.  She was called the Queen of Soul for a reason.  She had a powerful presence and charisma, and she was a true artist, with a voice that comes along only once in a generation.

Her signature song will always be RESPECT.  Who can ever forget the incredible staccato darts of her voice, shouting out the letters one at a time, while the band behind her laid down a classic Motown groove, all shivering and shaking?  She demanded respect and she earned it, but it wasn’t easy.  It was a long road, twists and turns, ups and downs, but she never stopped.  RESPECT.

It seems more than ironic that Aretha has passed from this world to the next precisely at a time when the sense of respect that she so memorably sang about is virtually impossible to find. I write these words just a few days after the Senate has concluded processing the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination.  The deliberations were torturous at best, but also riveting.  Americans were simultaneously fascinated and horrified, both compelled and repelled.  We tuned in, we read the papers, we watched the late night news shows, we listened to the radio coverage – we were drawn to the event like flies to a carcass.

And regardless of which side you were on, whether you believed him or her or some combination of both, whether you knew that he was lying or wondered if she was misremembering, what was definitively lacking in all of the proceedings was any sense of respect.  Instead the Senate, a once (at least in legend) austere and cordial body, was reduced to a caricature of one of the Fox News shows where people scream at each other, all the while belittling and insulting those with whom they disagree.

It would be helpful to us all to remember that respect, or lack of it, is not a political issue.  It is not ‘political’ to expect one person to treat another respectfully, whether that person is a Senator, a Supreme Court nominee, or the President of the United States.  It is that fundamental lack of respect that we now see at every level that degrades us all, our communities, our culture, our country.  It certainly degraded the Senate over these last few days, and the entire nomination of a Supreme Court justice.  How any of it will ever be cleaned up is beyond me.

What I worry about most is that we are all slowly being dragged down to that low level.  That, almost without realizing it, our language is becoming coarser and our anger more intense  That our ability to listen to one another is slowly but surely slipping away.  It is a downward trajectory, and the deeper we go, the harder it gets to climb out.  These lyrics from the classic Bob Dylan song ‘The Times They are A-Changin’ come to mind:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

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