Justice, Justice, Part One

English: Logo of the .
Food Stamps, if you can get them, will provide $31.50 a week. After that, it’s time to go find a line for the Food Bank. Can you live on $31.50 a week for food – indefinitely?

Justice, Justice you shall pursue. – Deuteronomy 16:20

Twice in the last month I have had experiences that made me wonder where justice might be found.

One was this morning.  I went to register voters at the Emeryville Community Action Program, where folks were taking numbers and lining up for a distribution of food from the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Everyone I talked with was already registered to vote, but I had some interesting conversations.

My politics are way left of center, but I try to challenge my assumptions. This was a golden opportunity to do just that: I’m at a place that is literally handing out free food and free (used) clothing. I looked at the group and asked myself, “Where could each of these people get a job, if there were jobs to be had?”

The only person I saw there under the age of 60 was a charming young man who was setting up.  I did not ask if he was a volunteer or a paid worker, but he was definitely working. Everyone else looked quite a bit older than me (57). I also noticed that every hand I shook was callused; these people had done some hard work in their day. Many were both elderly and disabled. There were also a fair number of Asian elderly ladies who did not speak English — but even if they had, I can’t picture them working at Starbucks.

For the life of me, I can’t imagine what any of them would be doing without help from someone, nor can I imagine that there’s anything wrong with them getting help. But I’d rather see them at the grocery store with food stamps than standing in line on the street, waiting for the Food Bank handout. Old people should be treated with dignity, or so I was taught.

That brings me to the second experience: at the Veteran’s Administration. I’ll blog that one tomorrow.

Justice, justice you will pursue.

Where is the justice? It sure isn’t standing out there on San Pablo Ave, waiting patiently for a little food.

Sinning Against Myself

Look in the mirror.  Look at the face that looks back at you.  What do you see?

Do you see a person

— who needs sleep?

— who needs to see a doctor?

— who drinks too much?

— who eats unhealthfully?

— who is too tired to know what she needs?

— who is depressed?

— who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?

— who hasn’t laughed in HOW long?

— who is secretly struggling with something he hopes no one else will notice?

— who needs help and won’t ask for it?

— who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?

— who is lonely?

— who is frightened about something?

— who hasn’t had a day off  in HOW long?

Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.

These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?

Then make a plan.  Do it.

If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend.  Admit how hard it’s all gotten to someone who won’t tell on you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden.  Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.

Make the call.  Do it.

For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone: those include the sins against ourselves.

Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.

Selichot: Seven Tips for Beginners

Spill
Spill (Photo credit: simpologist)

Rosh HaShanah is coming, and the temple bulletin says about something called Selichot. What’s that? Do I want to attend?:

1. WHAT IS SELICHOT? Loosely translated, it means “Please forgive.”  The word has two meanings at this time of year: (1) prayers asking God’s  forgiveness for misdeeds and (2) a service of such prayers, usually on the evening of the last Saturday before Rosh HaShanah.

2. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SERVICE? The Selichot service marks the beginning of the High Holy Day season. While individuals may have been observing Elul, this is the point at which we see big changes in the synagogue. Torah covers are changed from the regular covers to white ones. The clergy may begin wearing white, or white robes. The music and the tunes of the prayers change from the familiar tunes to the High Holy Day tunes.  We read lists of sins (vidui) that individuals or the whole community may have committed.

3. WHAT ARE HIGH HOLY DAY TUNES? For a taste of the High Holy Day nusach (tune), listen to this playlist of melodies assembled by Student Rabbi Ahuva Zaches. It’s particularly nice because it shows you the words while you learn the tunes, and because it is so simply done that you can really hear the melodies.

4. WHY READ LISTS OF SINS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY AREN’T MY SINS? First, we are fallible human beings, and it is easy to forget things, especially things we do not want to remember. Going over a list jogs the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. While I am not responsible for the sins of my neighbor, he and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so his sins affect me. Finally, some sins are communal: for instance, we may talk about “the poor” and the need to “love the stranger” but what action have we as a community actually taken? Are we a community who fosters sinful behavior such as gossip? The lists bring up those questions as well.

5. WHY IS IT HELD SO LATE AT NIGHT? In some communities, Selichot may be a midnight or late night service.  Traditionally, the hours between nightfall and midnight are hours of din, of stern justice, but the hours after midnight are a time when the presence of God is gentler. We are asking for mercy in these prayers, so we say them late at night. (This has to do with the darkness, which will begin to lift towards morning.) In more modern terms, it gives a very solemn feel to the service, and breaks us out of our usual routine, which is a way of saying, “Look out! The High Holy Days are almost here!”

6. WHAT IF I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? Even if you don’t believe in God, you may need to deal with things you have done.  If you find the idea of a God who sits in judgment problematic or even ridiculous, that’s OK. When we sin — do things that damage relationships, do harm to the world or ourselves — our actions have consequences. When we pray for mercy, we are praying that those consequences will be light. However, wishing alone won’t do the job — we have to take responsibility for our deeds, and take action to minimize the damage we have done. That’s teshuvah, or repentance.  All the sins listed in the vidui (list of sins) are things that left unchecked will have bad consequences and hurt someone. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility (ask forgiveness), and take action to fix and prevent in the future.

7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. It is usually not a long service. But more than anything else, it is a service with a very distinct purpose: to get us ready to change our ways for the better. This is not your usual synagogue service.  Also — added bonus! — if you are not going to be able to go to the High Holy Day services for some reason, this is a small taste of them that does not require tickets.

L’Shana Tova Umetuka!  I wish you a good and a sweet New Year!

Keep the Change

“Keep the change.”

Is the change just what’s leftover, or is it a generous bonus?

What do I leave behind me, not just on cafe tables, but in every room where I spend time? Do people smile when they see what I’ve left, or do they feel cheated?

These are questions worth asking. Everywhere I go, I leave something “on the table.” It may be just a feeling or an impression but it affects others. How do others feel when I’ve left the room?

What do I leave behind me? Hurt feelings, or warmth? Pain, or relief? Confusion, or confidence?

If I don’t like the answers to those questions, what needs to change?

The Freeway Blessing

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This post originally appeared on Kol Isha, the blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

As I perched on the hospital gurney, I reviewed the facts: the SUV slipped into the space ahead of me on the crowded highway and then braked abruptly. Its lights glowed red as I pressed and then stomped my own brakes. Time slowed as my car slammed into the SUV.

Air bags will save your life, but to do so they punch your chest like a champion boxer. For a 57 year old woman, chest pains demand a trip to the ER, even if they come after an encounter with an airbag.  Once I got to the hospital, they decided I wasn’t dying, but they wanted to keep me for a bit “for observation.” That’s how I wound up parked on a gurney, meditating on the seriousness of driving a car.

Until the afternoon of April 17, I prided myself on my good driving record, but it was no more than a nice report card. I seldom thought about the fact that when I’m driving I hold the lives of other human beings in my hands, and others hold mine.

The Torah regards life and health as precious gifts. Deuteronomy 22:8 commands us to put railings on the high places in our houses to prevent accidents. The rabbis of the Talmud went even further in Bava Kamma 15b, saying that one should not keep anything dangerous, neither a biting dog nor an unsafe ladder. PIkuach nefesh, the preservation of life, is such an important mitzvah that it can override almost any other mitzvah: better to violate the Sabbath than to let someone bleed to death, for instance.

And yet that afternoon, I had climbed into my little car with its 3,000 pounds of steel, and barely gave it a thought. I had been driving for 41 years, and driving had become routine. I didn’t speed or break the law. I didn’t chat on my cell phone or fix my makeup as I drove. But neither did I ever reflect that I was holding the lives of others in my hands.

Sitting on that gurney, I began to see that driving is a sacred activity, or it should be. Driving mindfully, aware of the lives flowing with me and past me on the highway, could be a form of worship of the One who created all those lives.  Conversely, driving carelessly, driving distracted, or driving sleepy is chillul Hashem, a desecration of the Name of God, because it invites the destruction of life given by God. Its very heedlessness is blasphemy.

I never found out why that car stopped so suddenly. All I know is that no one in the other  car was injured, my car was totalled, and I was lucky that I only had bruises. I am grateful that it was no worse.

Since that day, when I get in the car, I murmur what I have come to think of as the Freeway Blessing, a blessing to remind me to bring holy mindfulness to this sacred task:

Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, hanoten l’chol chaim.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.

“Choose life!” we are told in Deuteronomy. Behind the wheel of a car we each have that choice. I could have died on the freeway, but instead I was blessed: blessed with renewed awareness of the sacredness of life, and the responsibility we each have to preserve life.

#BlogElul: Return (In which the rabbi pitches a fit)

If you are wondering what “#BlogElul” means in the title, I’m one of a number of rabbis and others blogging together as we approach the High Holy Days this year. We’re organized by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, aka @imabima. If you’d like to hear a chorus of Jewish voices blogging this month, search for us on Twitter using the hashtag #BlogElul.

OK, so it’s the third of Elul and I’m only on the first topic: well, I’m a little rattled.  Actually, I’m a lot rattled, because I’m angry, and the topic of “Return” sums up what’s bugging me:

1. I’m angry at the RETURN of old lies.  US Rep Todd Akin of Missouri went on the record saying that pregnancy rarely results from rape. (Therefore, he suggests, raped women don’t need access to Plan B or abortions.) In case you were wondering, over 32,000 rapes in the U.S. result in pregnancy each years, according to a 1996 study published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  Whatever your feelings about Roe v. Wade, vicious lies and misinformation do not help matters.

2. I’m angry at the RETURN of terms like “Legitimate Rape.” This brings to mind old canards like “she asked for it” and such. What happened, did I go to sleep sometime this summer and wake up in 1970?

3. I’m angry at the RETURN of outdated attitudes towards women in Israel, and the use of the police to enforce them.  For example, check out what happened this Rosh Chodesh (first of the new month) at the Western Wall, the so-called holiest site in Judaism, which is sounding pretty UNholy to me these days.  Four women were detained for hours by police for wearing white or black and white prayer shawls.  No, I’m not kidding. Read this blog entry by an eyewitness for the details. I’m too disgusted to repeat them in detail. For a sense of the bigger picture, check out Merav Michaeli’s excellent op-ed in Haaretz: “Be a Woman and Shut Up.”

4. I’m angry at the RETURN of lynching as a substitute for justice.  This headline that appeared today in Haaretz, the newspaper of record in Israel: “Israel Police: Hundreds watched attempt to lynch Palestinians in Jerusalem, did not interfere.” The article that follows describes something that sounds like it came out of the Jim Crow South. I am a lover of Israel, a proud Zionist, but I am covered in shame. This, from Jews? From the people whose holy Torah says, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue?”

5. I’m angry at the RETURN of yet more mass murders, in Colorado and elsewhere. Why can’t we figure out how to keep assault weapons out of the hands of dangerously deranged persons? Again, whatever your stand on the Second Amendment, the founders did NOT intend for us to have mass murder after mass murder.

I could keep on going; that’s the awful part.

I know that Elul is not about looking outside myself and seeing what makes me mad. It’s for looking inside myself and seeing what needs fixing.

So maybe the question is, if I’m so mad about the RETURN of these things, what could I be doing about them?  I can only change myself, but how can the world change if I haven’t bothered to do anything about it?

Thus begins Elul 5772.

A Reform Tisha B’Av

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Tisha B’Av (ti-SHA beh-AHV) is a commemoration of disasters that the Jewish people have experienced over the centuries, starting with the destruction of the first Temple (586 BCE) and the destruction of the second Temple (70 CE). But if we recall these two destructions purely as “look what terrible things have happened to us” we have missed the point.

The point, as underlined by the readings from the Prophets over the past three weeks, is that the Temples were not destroyed by random chance or the whim of a jealous God. They fell because the Jews of their time lost track of Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that the first Temple fell because of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. They believed the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinom, baseless hatred among Jews.

Now you may say, “Oh, I don’t think that God causes wars or punishes people by destroying cities,” and I would agree with you.  People make wars, and people destroy cities. And it is in the way that we Jews conducted ourselves before the fall of each Temple that the seeds of destruction were sown.

The first destruction was in 586 BCE (before the common era, similar to the Christian B.C.), and the only records we have of it are the records in the books of the Bible. What we know is that for a long time before the destruction, the prophets were warning the people of Judea that the way they were living would end in disaster. They were worshiping foreign gods, distracting themselves with sexual immorality and engaging in bloodshed. The leaders put their faith in foreign alliances, and their economic policies favored the already wealthy over the poor, especially anyone poor who was not likely to ever be rich (widows and orphans.) If you don’t believe me, read the first chapter of the book of Isaiah. History has shown again and again that bad alliances, fraud, economic injustice, and lawlessness are a recipe for disaster.

We know more about the second round of destruction, in 70 CE (corresponds to the Christian A.D.).  In that time, Jews divided into political and religious parties that hated and scorned one another. They could not work together on anything; they could barely occupy the same country. While they squabbled and called each other names, they started a war with Rome, and Rome destroyed the Temple. If you read the history of the time in the record by Josephus, it’s pretty clear that we  brought the rage of the Romans upon ourselves, and we did it mostly by mistreating one another.

The rabbis who survived described the attitude of the time as sinat chinom, baseless hatred, and they established a season of mourning to remind their descendants that all these activities (idolatry, immorality, murder, economic injustice, and baseless hatred) had been the road to ruin. So for three weeks every year, we read warnings from the prophets, and we finish by observing Tisha B’Av.

Now, I’m a Reform rabbi. I am not looking for the Temple to be rebuilt. I do not want to see sacrifices on the Temple Mount, ever again. But I do observe Tisha B’Av. I observe it by taking the day to ask myself some questions — and to take action on the answers:

1. Do I engage in acts of sinat chinom? That is, do I take part in conversations that speak hatefully about other people? I can (and often do) disagree with other people, but am I willing to listen to them and to have a civil conversation with them?  Or do I let myself off the hook by saying that they won’t be civil to me, so I can be as nasty as my yetzer harah (my evil inclination) wants to be?

2. Do I profit from bloodshed? From economic injustice? Do I profit in some way from hatred? (These are big questions, far bigger than a blog post. Explore at will.)

Isaiah warns that no prayers, no observances, no fasts, no pious activities will suffice. The only way to make things right is to  “Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed.”

Today, I will engage in a fast of the heart: What needs to change? How fast can I change it?

Nothing else matters.

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An earlier version of this blog listed the date of the destruction as “386 BCE.” My thanks to the alert reader who caught  my typing error! I try to catch all of those before I publish, but things sometimes slip through. Thank you for telling me!