The Sound of Missiles, Again

Image: Two Kasam rockets fired from Gaza towards the town of Sderot, Israel on 3/27/09. (tipinfo via flickr, some rights reserved.)

I got the news very late last night from my friend Elana, in Israel:

You go to bed one night and wake up the next morning and there is a war happening around you. Again. What was that proverb about trying to solve the same problem with the same solution and expecting a different result? We need other options. #LifeinIsrael

– via Twitter

Shots are going back and forth between Gaza and Israel again. It seems to have been set off by the IDF’s assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, a military commander in the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He claimed to have been responsible for missile attacks over the past two years on the Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashdod and to be planning more such attacks.

If you would like to know more about him, the Times of Israel has a piece that has a lot of detail. I find that it is helpful to me, in keeping some perspective on all sides of the situation there, to learn as much as I can about individuals. Everyone tends to talk about Israel and Palestine in sweeping terms, and we forget that there are individual human beings on both sides. Some, like al-Ata, like many Israeli right-wingers, appear to have chosen the path of violence because they believe it to be the only path. When I read their individual stories, I understand why. Others don’t get to choose: like al-Ata’s wife, Asma, like the Israeli children of Sderot, they are there when the bomb lands and if they are not protected, they will die.

I have no answers to any of this. I am impaled upon the great irony, that if we are to believe our scriptures (both sides!) Jews and Muslims are members of the same family. If we live up to the highest values in our scriptures, on both sides, we could live side by side in harmony, but instead we have been the pawns of other powers, powers who use our conflict for their own ends. At this point, with so much blood shed and old grudges on both sides, I do not know how it can be sorted out.

It is also true that these two peoples have nowhere else to go. The Arab nations have been very clear that they do not want the Palestinians. Europe and the rest of the West have been very clear: they don’t want a bunch of Jews. This is the flip side of the great irony: Palestinians and Israelis neither one have any other home.

All I know for sure is that as a Jew, the only fear I am permitted is yirat Hashem, the fear of God. I am commanded to love those who are different from myself. I will keep trying to find a way.

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Feeling Scared? Try This.

Image: “Be kind” written on a sidewalk in chalk. (reneebigelow / Pixabay)

Have you noticed how angry many people seem to be right now? Linda and I noticed it driving home from Oakland on a pleasant Sunday morning. People drove their cars as if the cars were weapons and it was war.

Whatever their politics, a lot of people feel the strain of uncertainty, and often they express their fear with anger. Politics is one big angry fight. Here in California we’re feeling climate change very strongly, and people are worried, some are downright frightened. Things we used to depend on seem undependable.

In such times, I keep myself calm with the first line of the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian

Much as I’d like to, by myself I can’t fix the climate. I can’t fix Pacific Gas & Electric. I can’t fix Washington. It may be that by voting, in cooperation with others, I may be able to help with those things, but it isn’t Election Day yet. So I have to put those things, for now, on the “accept” list. I don’t like them, but that’s reality.

What do I have the power to change? I can choose to be one tranquil person, one kind person, out there on the road and in the world generally. I can choose that each person with whom I interact leaves our conversation at least no more upset than they were when we began.

  • I can say “no” kindly, when I have to say no.
  • I can say “yes” with grace, when I can say yes.
  • I can maintain a calm and kind presence.
  • I can be a careful driver, neither in a hurry nor too slow.
  • I can focus on the Jewish value of kindness, chesed, and try to bring it to every interaction.

More thoughts about kindness:

The world rests upon three things: Torah, worship, and acts of kindness.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in From Optimism to Hope

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally.

– Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, “Loving Kindness in the Torah

My own behavior is one thing I can control. Kindness is what each of us can bring to the world in times of trouble.

Teaching Children about Money

Image: Girl holding pitcher in front of lemonade stand (Hurst Photo) All Rights Reserved.

  • What did your parents say to you about money, growing up?
  • What did you learn about money from watching your parents?
  • What do you wish you had learned from your parents about money?

Money is one of the most awkward topics to discuss with our children. It goes right to the heart of our values and often, to any shame we are carrying from our own life experiences. A study by T. Rowe Price in 2017 revealed that 69% of parents feel reluctance in talking about money with their children.

And yet the Torah is adamant that we talk to our children about our possessions, including money:

Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your possessions. And these words that I command to you today shall be in your heart: you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

Deuteronomy 6:4-7

There it is, right in the Shema prayer: “You shall love… God… with all your possessions. And these words that I command to you today… you shall teach them diligently to your children.”

Here are some suggestions for talking with children about money:

  1. Take some time to think about your own values and feelings about money, and those of the other parent. Ask yourself, “What do I really believe, and how does it show in my behavior?” We cannot be truthful with our children if we aren’t truthful with ourselves first.
  2. Also, listen to your own speech about money: whom you admire, whom if anyone you envy, whom you talk about in disparaging terms. Keep in mind that your children are taking all this in: are these the messages you want to teach them?
  3. Talk about needs vs. wants. This works better when it is not in the middle of a conversation about something your child desperately wants. Let them hear you think out loud about your own money decisions.
  4. Answer questions about money with questions to find out what exactly your child is asking. If a child asks, “Are we rich?” ask, “Why do you ask?” Get at the actual question, which might be anything from “Do we have enough money to live?” to “Someone at school said some mean anti-Semitic things to me about rich Jews.”
  5. When a child expresses worry, take them seriously. Find out what is worrying them about money, hear them out, and reassure them as truthfully as you can.
  6. As children grow up, let them participate in some family decision-making about money. The tzedakah budget is a great place to begin.
  7. Children need practice in handling their own money, either from an allowance or money that they earn themselves.
  8. Above all, be honest. Children need to be able to trust you, and if you aren’t telling the truth (if your words don’t match your behavior) they will notice and will not know when to believe you.

Shabbat Shalom — Lech Lecha

“Lech lecha” – “Get yourself” or “Go, you!” or “Go forth” is from the first line of this week’s Torah portion:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

The Eternal said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Genesis 12:1

As often happens, the ambiguity of translation gives us lots of room for interpretation. This is a story about a leap of faith, about a journey, about a dream. What does it say to you, in this particular year, in your particular situation?

Some words from our online darshanim [preachers]:

The Making of a Covenant with Both Men and Women by Rabbi Ellen M.Umansky

“To Boldly Go:” on Lech Lecha and Star Trek – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Smashing Idols – Rabbi Dan Fink

Sojourners for Justice – Rabbi Nina Mizrahi

Sarah: Blinded by her outward appearance… – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

A Letter from Abram by Rabbi Bruce Kadden

Lessons from the Elevator

Image: Me and my scooter.

I’m staying at a hotel this week, and my room is on the eighth floor. I can’t walk very far without my mobility scooter, so every time I leave the floor, I use the elevator.

I press the button and wait. I never know what or whom I will see when the door opens; elevators are all surprise packages. The hotel is busy, so usually I ride with other people, and if I ride alone, someone is waiting when the door slides open in the lobby.

Nobody expects to be greeted by a fat lady on a tricycle when the elevator doors open. There are always nervous giggles and hesitation when other riders first see me. I get that. I would be very surprised if the door opened and another scooter-rider greeted me!

I would be content if they ignored me, per the usual elevator etiquette, but many men (it’s always men, for some reason) seem to feel they must say something. The comments are usually spoken in a jokey tone:

  • Wow, how fast does that thing go?
  • You don’t drink and drive, do you?
  • Look out, Evil Kneivel is riding with us!
  • Where did you drive from on that thing?
  • Hey, Speed Demon!

I have heard each of those jokes more than once this week, except for the Evil Kneivel one. That one was original, I will admit.

From their expressions I can tell that the speakers are uncomfortable and are trying to be friendly. The problem is, those comments do not start a conversation. There is nothing to latch onto, no reply that makes any sense. So I smile vaguely without making eye contact and hope that one of us can exit soon.

Why talk about this on this blog? One of my fondest hopes is to make more people comfortable in synagogue. And this elevator talk is a sterling example of a kind of behavior that makes everyone UNcomfortable pretty much anywhere.

When we meet someone who is different than the ordinary, we feel uncomfortable. That is normal, and there is no need to feel badly about it. What we must learn is a routine to move past that discomfort quickly, if we are going to welcome people to our synagogue, or to be gracious guests in a synagogue. Jokes are counterproductive; comments on the other person’s appearance or person will get awkward fast.

It is counterproductive to focus on the thing that is different (the scooter, the tattoo, the skin color, the accent, the hair, whatever.) Commenting on it, or joking about it risks saying something at best annoying (how many times has the tall guy been asked how the air is up there?) and is at worst truly offensive (racist, sexist, ableist, etc.) Instead, wise people focus on whatever things we may have in common:

  • Wow, this elevator is slow!
  • The weather is lovely today!
  • Have you seen the garden here yet?
  • Welcome to Beth Plony! Want a coffee?
  • Wow, how about those Dodgers?

Then of course there’s the very best line for synagogue, if said sincerely:

  • Hi! I’m Ruth. Have we met yet?

Facebook Blackout!

Image:

My social media habits are shifting.

I am participating in a Facebook blackout from Nov 5 – Nov 11, 2019. A number of us are doing this for two reasons:

1. If we live in a place where we vote, we don’t want to be influenced by the political ads on Facebook,even inadvertently.

2. We are staying off until Veterans Day as a protest against Facebook’s public position that they are fine with untruthful political advertising as long as they get paid for it. In taking that position, Facebook, where 40% of the US electorate gets its news, has claimed an exception to the rules for political advertising.

I am looking for some alternatives to Facebook for my professional and family networking. I’d like to sever all relationship with Mr Zuckerberg and his policies. Until then this little blackout will have to do.

Ask the Rabbi: Gluten Free?

Image: Symbol for “Gluten Free” – a picture of wheat with a big red NO symbol across it. (Image by Kurious from Pixabay)

The exact question was as follows, from someone who is exploring Judaism but is not Jewish:

I am a celiac with MCAS, and cannot participate in the bread and wine. Who do you have that conversation with? Especially if you haven’t converted yet and are “just exploring.”

@pfanderson on Twitter

My experience of Ashkenazi Jewish communities is that in general, we love to talk about medical issues. From a hospitality point of view, that is sometimes a bit of a problem when guests (or members!) feel that others’ questions are a bit too probing.

My suggestion is that you say, “No, thank you.” The offer-er will often urge you to have some (we can’t let you go hungry!) and then you have a choice. Either you can say, “No, really, thanks” and preserve your privacy or you can say, “Do you have gluten free?” They can likely give you grape or apple juice instead of wine if you like, and some synagogues will offer a gluten-free substitute for the bread.

If you choose to disclose your dietary needs, they will assume that you have a medically-limited diet, and that’s when the chatty-about-medical-stuff thing will kick in. Feel free not to play, or to play if you enjoy it. It is perfectly OK to say, “I only discuss my medical situation with my doctor.”

Now, as to bread and wine: In some Christian churches, bread and wine/grape juice are served as a ritual for members only, called “communion.” This is not the case at synagogue: the bread is just bread and it is for everyone. The blessing before the bread acknowledges that bread is a gift of God. The blessing before the wine may be a short blessing acknowledging that God brought wine from the fruit or, if it’s long and musical, it’s a toast to Shabbat. Either way, you are welcome to participate, if you are able to have the juice option, which should always be available.