A Vidui for Martin Luther King Day

January 19, 2015
"<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ShofarSound.JPG#mediaviewer/File:ShofarSound.JPG">ShofarSound</a>" by <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Jonathunder" title="User:Jonathunder">Jonathunder</a> - <span class="int-own-work">Own work</span>. Licensed under <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a> via <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

The sound of the Shofar traditionally calls Jews to repentance.

A vidui is a Jewish confession of sin. We tend to associate this form of prayer with Yom Kippur and with the prayers of the dying, although a short vidui is part of the traditional weekday liturgy.

A communal vidui includes sins which I may not personally have committed, but which some in my community may have committed. By claiming them as my own sins, I underline that I am responsible not only for myself, but also for elements in our communal life which may have fostered the sin in our members.

I offer this vidui for my sins and those of my communities.

For all our sins, may the Holy One who makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Arrogance, that makes it difficult to see our own failings

For the sin of Brutality, that makes it possible for us to stand by and think, “He must have deserved it”

For the sin of Credulity, in which we have believed “news” from unreliable sources

For the sin of Disregarding facts that were uncomfortable for us

For the sin of Executing those whose offenses did not merit their death, and for standing by as our civil servants carried out those acts

For the sin of allowing unreasoning Fear to dictate our behavior towards others

For the sin of Greed, underpaying for work or over-charging for services

For the sin of baseless Hatred, that demonizes entire groups of other human beings

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of willful Ignorance, not wanting to know things that are embarrassing to us

For the sin of Jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, separated from opportunities to better themselves and their families,

For the sin of Killing the hope of young men who believe that their only futures lie in prison or the grave

For the sin of Laziness in speaking up, when we hear racist language

For the sin of Minimizing the discomfort of others

For the sin of Non-Apologies that didn’t express true sorrow

For the sin of Omission, when we failed to act upon our expressed convictions

For the sin of Presuming that someone has a particular role because of their skin color

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of Quiescence in the face of the racist behavior of others

For the sin of Racism, in all its myriad forms

For the sin of Self-congratulation for acts of common decency

For the sin of Taking umbrage when someone calls us on a racist word or act

For the Unconscious acts which have injured others without our awareness

For the sin of Violence against other human beings

For the sin of using Words in ways that perpetuate racism in any way

For the sin of Xenophobia, fearing and hating those who seem foreign to us

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of Yakking when we should have been listening

For the sin of Zoning out when we assumed this list wasn’t about us

For all of the sins of commission and omission, all the sins we committed consciously and unconsciously, for those that were simply accidents and those for which we failed to make an apology

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For it is through true acts of genuine repentance and a sincere desire to change that we will open the future before our nation: a future of fairness, justice and peace. May all troubled hearts be comforted, may all wounded souls be healed, and may we live to see the day when the scourge of racism is truly behind us.

Amen.

 

[Image is licensed under Creative Commons copyright]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


A Time for Work, A Time For Change

January 18, 2015

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of (people) willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid road of human dignity.” – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Reverend Dr. King wrote those words over 45 years ago, but they remain true today. Then was the time for positive change, and now is also the time to make change in our institutions and in our hearts, if justice is truly to be done in the United States.

I have watched and listened as the recent violence in France has been discussed in the press. One thing seemed to me to stand out above almost everything else: it seems to be a human inclination to regard those different from ourselves with fear and anger. If we are to progress as human beings, we must fight against that inclination with every ounce of our being. Whether the perceived “other” is dark-skinned, or wearing a hijab, or Jewish, or has a foreign-sounding last name, underneath it all they are human, exactly like ourselves, and they deserve the respect and dignity we give everyone else.

Here in the United States we created a web of legal and cultural barriers to equality that still bedevil us, and it is up to us to do something about it. Lip service is worse than doing nothing at all; lip service is nothing but soothing laziness. This Martin Luther King Day, we white Americans need to challenge ourselves to do more, to do today, to speak up when something is not right and to keep speaking up until it is made right.

We cannot distract ourselves with list-making for persons of color – they are more than qualified to make their own to-do lists. We cannot distract ourselves with celebrations for work done 50 or 40 or 30 years ago; we need to focus on the work that remains undone. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by those who benefit from the current situation, either; our task is to hunger and thirst and work for justice until justice is manifest among us. This is our time; it is up to us.

 


The Power of Song in Prayer

January 18, 2015
Singing is not just for the choir!

Sing to the Eternal a new song! – Ps. 98:1

“I get more out of the service when I sing.”

The person who said that to me this past Shabbat evening was a woman I’ve known for a long time. She used to sit quietly during services, listening to the music but never participating except by tapping her toe or her fingertips. I noticed that she was singing, and asked her about it.

“I just get more out of it if I sing,” she said, “I can’t explain it.”

That’s my experience, too: I feel the service more deeply and I lose myself in it if I sing along. A lot of people don’t sing because they are insecure about their voices, and that’s a shame. Jewish prayer is a whole-body, whole-person experience, and the person who doesn’t sing misses out on a part of it. People don’t sing for a lot of reasons:

“I have a terrible singing voice” – The quality of your singing voice is not important. It might have been important in high school glee club, but it isn’t an issue for congregational singing. If you are really worried about it, sing softly, but sing.

“I don’t know the tunes” – The way most people learn the tunes is by singing along. Again, sing softly if you are unsure, but if you can sing with the car radio, you can sing along with “Adon Olam,” even if the tune is new to you.

“I don’t know the words.” – So don’t use the words! Sing “lai-lai-lai” or “dai-dai-dai” or whatever works for you. Again, if you sing along, you’ll learn the words faster.  If you are self-conscious, sing softly.

“I’d rather listen to others sing.” – OK, sometimes when that’s what I need from the service, I just listen, too. But if that’s all I ever did, it would be like showing up to potluck suppers empty-handed time after time. Congregational singing is part of the service precisely because it lifts the spirit in a way that nothing else can; it is something we do for ourselves and for one another.

If you are worried about the etiquette of congregational singing, here are some tips:

  1. Do sing, but don’t bellow. A nice rule of thumb is that you should be able to hear other people around you sing, too.
  2. If you are unsure of words or tune, sing a bit more softly.
  3. Sing with, not against the congregation. If you learned the tune a different way, that’s interesting but do not try to impose your will on others.
  4. Sing with the congregation. If the cantor or soloist is singing alone, don’t chime in; it will look like you are showing off.

When human beings sing in a group, we join ourselves together at a deep level. We take breaths together, we move together, we almost become a new, larger being. Music is a mysterious and wonderful part of liturgy; it reaches parts of the human psyche that are otherwise difficult to touch. It is one of the oldest forms of Jewish worship:

Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Eternal, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Eternal, for God is highly exalted. – Exodus 15:1

Music transcends time; it is old and new. It stirs memory and emotion and it moves hearts.  Do you sing in the service? Why or why not?

 

 


Va’era: It’s Not About Us

January 15, 2015

Open_Torah_and_pointerTo modern ears, there’s an odd digression in Chapter 6 of Exodus. Just as we become engrossed in the narrative of the struggle between God and Pharaoh over the Israelites, everything stops for a genealogy of Moses and Aaron in verses 14 – 29.

Why the digression?

Notice that the digression is bracketed by Moses’ plaintive cry, “See, my lips are uncircumcised! How is Pharaoh going to listen to me?” There are at least three ways to understand that repetition. The first is that Moses is truly desperate. Whatever he means by “uncircumcised lips,” he is frantic that he does not feel like the right man for a very important job. He’s not going to be side-tracked or ignored. And yet that’s what God seems to do as the text meanders off into a genealogical treatise on the line of Aaron.

The second possibility is that the digression is evidence that this story started out as oral history. In Sarna’s commentary on Exodus, he suggests that this digression is a literary device to separate the first part of the story from the next. He points out that this interruption comes at a low point in the story: the Israelites are suffering and so far, divine intervention has only made matters worse. Moses’ repeated line is the storyteller’s signal that we are getting back to the story now after the break.

There’s a third possibility: both times, God seems to ignore Moses’ objection. The genealogy seems to say, “Look, you are from a long line of people with the Right Stuff. Buck up!” The second time Moses’ says it, God pushes him aside:

See, I give you as God to Pharaoh,  and Aaron your brother will be your prophet!” – Exodus 7:1

or in a more vernacular form: “Lookit, Moshe, this is not about you!”

So often we get distracted from an important mitzvah by our own insecurities:

  • I can’t make a shiva call because I don’t have the right clothes.
  • I can’t speak up against a racial slur; no one listens to me.
  • I can’t chant Torah – my voice isn’t pretty.
  • I can’t give tzedakah – what I have to give will not make a difference.

Moses felt he couldn’t speak clearly and be heard. Because of that, he wanted God to call someone else, anyone else. But in this story, God wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

God says “I give you as God to Pharaoh.” It’s a curious phrase. Who can “be” God? And yet that is exactly what we are each called to be dozens of times a day, every time there is a mitzvah to be done. We are the hands of God in the world. We are the comforters at the shiva house, the ones who can speak up against slurs, the ones who give tzedakah to relieve suffering.

No matter whether we believe in a personal God or in a God beyond human understanding, most of the work we attribute to “God” in the world must be done by human hands. None of us are up to the job, the boundless needs of a suffering world. None of us will complete the task. And that’s OK – it’s not about us.

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”

He also used to say: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. And know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.” – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16.


Working Out Jewishly?

January 14, 2015

gym-148632_640I work out twice weekly with a trainer. I have some physical issues that make it really important that I work out, and equally important that I be supervised – I tend to mess up on my own, doing either too much or too little or the wrong thing.

My trainer has been out on maternity leave this fall. That is great news (adorable healthy baby!) but it does mean that I’ve been working out completely on my own. The good news for me is that I kept up my workouts four days a week. The not-so-good news is that I didn’t challenge myself enough, so I’m not in the shape I was in before the baby arrived. Could be worse, and at least I didn’t get injured, but I’m glad to be back into routine, working out under Brittany’s watchful eye.

It occurred to me today as I hobbled back to my car that physical training has a lot in common with a number of things in Jewish life. My prayer life and my study life go better with company, too.  When I do them on my own for too long, I get slack. Eventually I will start losing ground, getting lazy, taking shortcuts, losing the benefit of the activity.

This is why, when I can, I pray with others and I study with others. This past summer and fall I did a thorough review of Biblical Hebrew grammar with a teacher. Sure, I know all that stuff – or I did! – but going over it with a teacher who knows the fine points was a great way to work out my brain and re-sharpen my tools. The same is true for prayer. I have been busy with the hospitality project and not in synagogue as much as before. It’s time to fix that, and improve my prayer by doing more of it with a minyan.

What about you? What aspects of your Jewish life go better with company? Is there anything you feel you truly do better alone?

 


People of the Library

January 12, 2015
Jewish bookshelf

Part of my library

We Jews are often called the people of the book, but one could easily argue that we are really the people of the library. A Bible, after all, is not a single book: it is a collection of books, each separate and distinct. Even our Sefer Torah, our Torah scroll, is not a single book but a collection of five books in a single scroll.

The holy books, the s’forim, don’t stop with the Tanakh (Bible.) We have collections of midrash, sermons and stories that launch from verses in the Tanakh. We have the process of Mishnah and Gemara, in which centuries of rabbis clarify the ways in which actual lives of Torah might proceed from the document, Torah. We have mystical literature, and poetry, and law codes, on and on.

We love our books. We write books about our books, and notes within our books. If you look in a used book store or library for old Jewish books, often you will find neatly pencilled notes in the margins, references to the words of our teachers or to other books. I assembled much of my library at used book stores and sales, and I especially value the books with marginalia that came from the hands of other rabbis.

Of course, nowadays all of these books are available in electronic formats, many of them online. I suspect the ancient rabbis would have loved this technology, books that can be searched and indexed in a zillion different ways, all at the touch of a few buttons. Many different writers have pointed out that Talmud was an early precursor to hypertext, so the ancient rabbis might have felt right at home with it!

An observant Jew says the words of the Shema several times a day. It is a set of verses from Torah which we repeat many, many times over the course of a lifetime. The Shema is central to Judaism; it proclaims not only our monotheism but also our reverence for words, the words in our most beloved books:

And these words that I give you today will be upon your hearts.   Teach them to your children. Speak them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.   Bind them as symbols on your hands and tie them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:6-9


Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

January 11, 2015
There's an Easy Way?

There’s an Easy Way?

What was Moses’ problem?

And Moses said to the Eternal: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither in the past, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10

And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying: “Look, the children of Israel have not heard me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, I who have uncircumcised lips?’ – Exodus 6:12

And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Look, I have uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh hear me?’ – Exodus 6:30

I have deliberately translated the Hebrew in these verses as literally as I can, so that we can look at them closely. What on earth are “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” and “uncircumcised lips?”

The medieval commentators disagreed. Rashi was sure that Moses had a stutter.  Rashbam, his grandson, was equally certain that Moses was saying that he wasn’t fluent in Egyptian. Ibn Ezra, writing in 10th century Spain, suggested that it meant that Moses was not a smooth talker. In a modern translation by Nahum Sarna, he echoes the verdict of Rashi on the phrase “uncircumcised lips,” that it indicates some kind of obstruction, and he points out that elsewhere the Bible refers to uncircumcised hearts and ears in a seemingly metaphorical way.

Whatever the trouble, Moses was bothered enough that he kept bringing it up. God appeared to take it seriously in Exodus 4, and suggested a aide for Moses, his brother Aaron. Then, after a disastrous meeting with Pharaoh in which he managed to get the Israelites work increased, and an equally disastrous meeting with the Israelites over the matter, Moses brings it up again. This time, God changes the subject to genealogy, and after that discussion, Moses repeats his line about “uncircumcised lips.” What is going on here?

First, notice that God suggests Aaron as an aide. Aaron is unlikely to be fluent in court Egyptian, the language Moses spoke most of his life. However, Aaron is fluent in Hebrew, the language Moses spoke at most during the years his mother was his wet-nurse, perhaps through age 5.

Second, after things have gone so badly with both Pharaoh and the Hebrews, Moses begins talking about “uncircumcised lips.” This phrase did not appear in the first discussion. What is different? Now the Hebrews are mad at Moses, and they’ve rejected him.

I think that Rashbam was almost right: I think Moses was worried that he didn’t speak Hebrew fluently. His lips were uncircumcised because his language doesn’t sound Jewish (well, Hebraic.) Pharaoh would be unable to hear him because he had no credibility: how could he represent the Hebrews before Pharaoh if they repudiated him?

Notice that in later years, in the desert, Moses’ speech problems were never mentioned. The Hebrews got mad at him fairly regularly, but we never again read about uncircumcised lips or a heavy mouth. I suggest that with practice, Moses became more fluent, and the problem went away.

I find this interpretation encouraging. First, for those of us who learn Hebrew later in life, it is comforting to hear that perhaps even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher) also felt insecure about his accent, but that it improved with practice.

It is a small thing in chapters with many more important points, but just in case someone reads this who is struggling with Hebrew, know that you are definitely not alone! With enough practice, we all improve.

 


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