Prayer for Baseball Trades

Image: PacBell Park, San Francisco, summertime. (350543/Pixabay)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-That-Is! In Your wisdom You commanded the orderly progression of night into day, and set the planets in motion with a word. Grant seychel to the baseball team managers as they set our players in motion from team to team, from franchise to franchise. May they achieve the perfect harmony they seek. Amen.

Give comfort to the players in motion and their families. May their new home be a good home, and may they be greeted with enthusiasm wherever they go. Amen.

Console the fans, O God of Compassion, as they mourn the departure of favorite players. Give them open hearts to receive the new faces, the bats and gloves of new players. Give them patience for a period of adjustment. Amen.

May the bats be mighty and the pitchers wily. May the green diamonds overflow with the joy of the game, and may all players and fans alike end each game with gratitude for what went well, and energetic discussion of what lacked.

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games. Amen.

* A rabbinical note: The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although certain skeptical Wissenschaft types insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.

Advertisements

I Cringe When I Read Leviticus 25

Image: An old wooden fence post, criss-crossed with barbed wire. (LeoNeoBoy/Pixabay.)

Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. – Leviticus 25:44

We are reading Parashat Behar-Bechukotai this week, in which these words appear.

There are verses in the Torah that are downright painful to read, and Chapter 25 of Leviticus, with its rules for Jews keeping slaves, is one of them for me. These verses have been used to justify the practice of slavery in many different times and places in history. These verses justified the keeping of slaves by Jews, and they were cited to justify the keeping of slaves in my birth state of Tennessee.

Over time we have learned better. Jews no longer keep slaves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives a summary of the history of those changes in The Slow End of Slavery, a d’var Torah on Parashat Mishpatim.  So what can we get out of reading these verses again and again, year after year?

First, while the practice of slavery is in our past, it is part of our history. As recently as the American Civil War, there were Jews as well as Christians who used the Torah to justify their ownership of other human beings. The memory of that should keep us humble. We should never forget that there may well be things we do lightly today that future generations will judge harshly.

These verses remind us that there are times and places in which we still, today, profit from immoral advantages over other human beings. For instance, “redlining”  was banned 50 years ago, but the evil it did still impacts black families today.

Look at our synagogue communities: we make it difficult for Jews with brown or black skins to feel at home in our synagogues. We are quick to assume that they must be hired help or dangerous strangers. We leave them standing alone at the oneg. Even if we don’t say or do something overtly cruel, we fail to greet them with the same enthusiasm we might extend to a member who “looks Jewish” to us. If you don’t believe me, do a little reading. One good beginning is Kippahed While Black: The Troubling Resurgence of “Schvartze” and “Kushi” a short opinion piece in the Forward by Michael Twitty.

We American Jews have a favorite photo that we like to trot out whenever the subject of civil rights or race comes up:

KingHeschel-photo

In the photo, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches at Selma with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr in March 1965.* But we speak too often of this photo as if the work is done: “See! There’s a rabbi there! One of ours!” We speak of it as somehow each of us should get credit for Rabbi Heschel’s walk.

The trouble with this is that each Jew is responsible for their own self. ALL of us are commanded – individually! – to free the prisoner, to feed the hungry, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice. We can’t slide by on the righteousness of a single rabbi who took courageous action 53 years ago. We cannot stand by while our neighbors bleed, while African Americans are executed for holding cell phones on their own family’s property.

Each of us – me included! – needs to ask “What am I doing about racial injustice today?” We need to ask it not in the past tense, and certainly not by proxy. We need to be open to improving our behavior. We need to drop the defensiveness that keeps us from learning when we’ve messed up. We need to not be so fragile when someone points out that what we’ve said or done was, yes, racist.

We can do this. I have great faith in our ability to learn and to make change. We can do it in the voting booth. We can do it by speaking up at racist “jokes.” We can do it by biting our tongues at phrases like “Not all white people…” We can do it by inviting speakers and leaders of color to our congregation to speak. We can do it by including in our tzedakah budgets organizations that serve people of color. We can do it by doing the good work and then not insisting on credit.

Every year when Leviticus 25 comes around, I cringe. I don’t like being reminded of past wrongs – no one likes it. But if I use that discomfort to open my heart, to open my ears, then it will all be worth it.  Shabbat shalom!

*For more about that iconic photo, read Susannah Heschel on the Legacy of Her Father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement, an article published in Moment Magazine in April, 2015.

 

The Tannaim, Models for Action

Image: The kever (grave) of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. (PikiWikiIsrael)

I’ve had a lot of trouble writing blog posts lately. Part of it is that I’ve been living on the mitzvah plan, getting through one day at a time doing mitzvot. Individually, I’ve had health challenges and work challenges. And as with many of you, the stresses that come with membership in my various communities have taken a toll.

I am worried by the rise in hate speech and hate crimes. I am worried by the loss of civility that I see all around me. I am worried by the “all or nothing” attitude I hear from most of the voices I hear, the absolute unwillingness to compromise. I worry about Israel. I worry about the United States. I worry that we are entering a period of history when democracy is drowned out by fascism and corruption.

The ancient rabbis we know as Tannaim (rabbis from 10-200 CE) lived in very troubled times. They lived in the Roman province known first as Judea and later as Palestina, through two disastrous attempts to throw off Roman rule. Many of them were hunted men, and we remember ten of them every year on Yom Kippur in the prayer known as Eleh Ezkerah, “These I remember.”

Lately I feel close to those rabbis: Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, and the others. They lived at a time when history swirled around them. They did work that has lasted for centuries: they midwifed Rabbinic Judaism into being. They assembled the Mishnah.  They made some terrible mistakes, too: Rabbi Akiva encouraged Shimon ben Kosevah to lead a revolt against Rome, renaming him “Shimon bar Kokhba,” Simon, son of the Star. The revolt ended in 135 CE with the Land in ruins and the Jews in exile.

Living in the middle of tumultuous times, they did not allow those times to paralyze them. Instead, they took action: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai seized an opportunity to negotiate a place for a rabbinic school as Jerusalem was burning. Rabbi Akiva gave Shimon ben Kosevah his support, because he thought Shimon could lead a successful revolt. Rabban Gamaliel traveled to Rome to plead for his people with the Emperor Domition in 95 CE. Judah haNasi recognized a moment at which precious Torah knowledge might be lost forever, and broke with tradition to write down the first part of the Oral Torah, the Mishnah.

I look at what those rabbis did, under conditions of great stress and danger, and I am challenged to step up in my own time. I write postcards to my elected officials. I joined a study group on prison reform in California. I have committed to start a book group to study racism. I have amended my own coursework to better address the divisions in the Jewish world, and prepare my students to do better in their own generation. I try to keep my mind and calendar open for opportunities to do good, whether it is a little mitzvah no one will ever see or a public action, like showing up for a demonstration.

Tough times call for action. I know that you have your own worry lists. I am aware that your lives are full of challenges. Still, I implore you not to be paralyzed by the times. Find ways to make this world better, not worse. That action will take different forms for different people; we all have different strengths and abilities. But now, more than ever, it is important that we recall that we are God’s hands in this world. As Rabbi Tarfon (another tanna) taught us:

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up. If you have studied much Torah much reward will be given you, for your employer is faithful, and he will pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come.  – Avot 2.20-21

If you are willing to share, I would love to hear what actions you are taking right now to make your part of the world better. It does not have to be earth-shaking; better that it is something small that can inspire me and others to continue to do our best, too.

I hope you will share your stories in the comments!

Reasons for Hope, April 2018

Image: A violet blooms in the cracks of a parched landscape. (manfredrichter/pixabay)

I’m always looking for signs of hope.

  1. Today I went to get my blood drawn, a weekly routine. My phlebotomist today was a trainee instead of the usual person. My veins are not the easiest to find, and the stick took longer and was more uncomfortable than usual. On the plus side, she’s now logged a bit more practice on an arm like mine and she’ll improve. I could tell she was trying not to hurt me. She could tell that I was doing my best to be pleasant. We had sympathy for one another in the moment.1.
  2. I am encouraged that the heads of state of North and South Korea met and were civil to one another. I don’t know how significant that was but I choose to see it as progress.
  3. I talk with a broad range of people on Twitter. I know Twitter can be a sewer, but it has allowed me to exchange ideas with people I’d never have met otherwise. I am encouraged that we can talk about difficult things and still see the humanity in each other.

All three events have a common denominator. Each involves a one-on-one personal connection which bridges a challenge.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught that when we choose to see the other person in front of us, to really be present to them, and they do the same with us, it is a special kind of event. He called it the I/Thou encounter, and he wrote that the Holy One dwells in the connection between those two people.  We can’t always have such encounters, but when we do, we bring holiness into the world.

Normally, my connection with phlebotomists is more of an I/It transaction. They are there to do a job; I’m a patient. But today, the difficulties posed by her inexperience and my hard-to-find veins presented us with a couple of choices: we could be thoroughly frustrated by each other OR we could choose to see each other in our humanity. The latter course left us both happier, I have no doubt.

I have no inside knowledge about the meeting between dictator Kim Jong-Un of North Korea and President Moon Jae-In of South Korea. However, I was impressed that they met one-on-one, they shook hands, they spoke at some length privately, and they published a list of shared goals. In addition to saying they were going to work on de-nuclearization of the peninsula, they published a declaration:

In the declaration, both sides also declared a stop to all hostile activities against each other. They also agreed to link cross-border railways and roads, and pledged to turn the demilitarized zone into a “genuine peace zone”. – CBS Miami, 4/27/18

I know there is skepticism on the part of South Korea, with fears that they are being deceived by the North Koreans. I imagine there are similar fears on the other side. But the two leaders met. They looked in each other’s eyes. They were present to one another. This was the first such meeting in 65 years. Surely that is a reason for hope.

In the final example, I’m sure Martin Buber could not have imagined Twitter in his wildest dreams, nor would he have wanted to. There is no handshake there, no meeting of eyes. However, Twitter provides a venue in which I can have a discussion with a Pakistani-American grad student who is studying Hebrew because he cares about Jewish-Muslim relations. Do we agree on everything? Not by a long shot. But we can listen to one another, we can acknowledge one another, we can find points of mutual interest even when we don’t agree.  I know what steals his sleep at night. He knows that I lose sleep, too.

The same goes for a few others, mostly activists I’ve met on Twitter.  I’ve learned more about race in America by listening quietly to those voices on Twitter, and following their reading suggestions, than I ever learned in my formal education. I had to learn to squelch my defensiveness and my urge to say, “But not all white people…” I had to learn to listen without arguing, to truly listen. Trust builds that way. Conversations have room to develop. Holiness enters the world.

Sometimes, in our anxiety, we demand too much too quickly. We want the pain to be over. We try to skip over the hard work of listening, of being truly present to one another, because the needle hurts, because nuclear warfare is terrifying even to contemplate, because it is painful to engage with ancient injustices.

The problem with magic wands is that they wield one-sided power. If I could wave a magic wand and make the phlebotomist suddenly really good at her job, I would rob her of the process of learning. Worse, I would rob both of us of the opportunity to find God between us at a painful moment! Holiness would not enter the world, because instead we would have a tidy little I/It transaction.

If I could wave a magic wand and heal Korea, it would be fixed as I think it should be fixed, and not take into account what the Koreans themselves want. Any peace that fails to take their needs and dreams into consideration is doomed to fail.  Only by doing the hard work of listening and talking – in that order! – is there any hope for true healing of that terrible wound.

If I could wave a magic wand and heal race in America, it would not bring peace. That’s because what we require for true healing of this dreadful illness is mutual respect. Because of that pesky “mutual” element, that peace will only come in the holy space between people who choose to see each other in an I/Thou way, recognizing each other’s humanity, respecting even each other’s fallibility.

If I could wave a magic wand and “fix” the Middle East, it would look like what I want it to look for about 10 minutes – and then it would all blow up again. The repeated failures in the Middle East are the children of a series of “fixes” that go back to the Roman Empire, if not before. Neither the Romans, nor the Ottomans, nor the British under the Mandate, nor the United Nations have really listened to all parties in their attempts to “fix” the region. Even had they listened, their listening would not have been a substitute for the actual Palestinian and Jewish stakeholders being able to encounter one another in an I/Thou mode. At this late date, I have no solutions to offer about the Middle East, but that is as it should be. I am not one of the primary stakeholders: I don’t live there.

This is my hope for the world: that with all the means of communication available to us, we will be able to have more conversations across our divides. Is it a faint hope? You bet. There are forces that profit from discord, and they will stir the pot and make life difficult. What I can do, what we all can do, is seize the opportunity to be present and human to one another when those moments offer themselves to us. All we can do is bring holiness into the world at every opportunity.

When I see that happening, I have hope.

 

For the Questions We Have Failed to Ask, O God, Forgive Us

Image: Intersection of 4th Avenue and Main Street in Franklin, Tennessee today, not far from the place where Samuel Bierfield was murdered. (ichabod via wikimedia, some rights reserved.)

This is a story about teshuvah: mine.

I grew up in Williamson County, Tennessee, a rural county south of Nashville. Today it is filled with suburbs and shopping centers, but back then there were few paved roads and no city water. We were acutely aware of the Civil War, because the countryside was littered with minie balls and other detritus from the battles.  People make pilgrimages to visit the Carter House, which is still riddled with bullet holes.  For the most part, what I heard from adults about “the War” was the standard Lost Cause story. There was little discussion of the institution of slavery and absolutely none of Reconstruction or the years that followed.

This situation is changing for the better.  I see on the Battle of Franklin Trust website that they have recently added a “Slavery and the Enslaved” tour to recall Frank Carter and the other souls who worked the land and built the economy of the area.  At its peak, in the 1850’s, the Carter House farm made use of 28 enslaved human beings. My thanks for that information to Kristi Farrow, a genealogist with the Battle of Franklin Trust. I am glad there are many people now involved in the holy work of remembering what should not be forgotten.

Last week I saw a CNN piece about the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice soon to open in Montgomery, AL. The museum has exhibits about slavery, about Reconstruction, and about Jim Crow. There is a memorial to the “more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.” (Quotation from the memorial website.) I realized, not for the first time, that although I was raised in a place that was absolutely obsessed with history, there was a lot of history I didn’t know about the place I grew up.  On a whim, I googled, “Williamson County Tennessee lynching.”

I got an education.

I learned that there had indeed been lynchings in my home county.  I, who had written a history for a church in Franklin, who could at one time tell you reams of detail about Franklin life in the 19th century, had no idea that there had been public hangings from the courthouse railings. I had no idea how active the KKK had been in Williamson County. I had no idea that there were many, many lynchings in the town and in the green hills of the countryside. It had never occurred to me to ask questions about any of this; I was as guilty as everyone else who has failed to ask and failed to remember. 

Farther down the Google offerings, I found another surprise: the first Jew ever lynched in the United States was a man named Samuel Bierfield, murdered in the summer of 1868 on Main Street in Franklin. The whole story, with all its complications, is beautifully laid out in The Untold Story of the First Jewish Lynching in America by Paul Berger in The Forward.

In 1868, the county was in the first stages of Reconstruction, and Bierfield was undeniably a “carpetbagger” (new resident from somewhere north, with an eye to opportunities in the postwar South) and a “foreigner.” He moved from Riga, Latvia to Toronto in the late 1850’s. In 1866 he moved south to Franklin, TN in hopes of making his way in the world. His letters back to family in Toronto reflect the ups and downs of his dry-goods store on Main Street in Franklin. On July 6, 1867 he wrote a letter to his parents about his losses due to a riot the week before, a battle between white and black citizens on Main Street.

1867 was a volatile time in Middle Tennessee. Blacks who had until recently been enslaved were now free and had high hopes for a better life. Most white men were Confederate veterans who had thereby forfeited their right to vote in the renewed Union. There was devastation all around and a great anger in many people.  Where, exactly, Samuel Bierfield fit into that mix is uncertain; perhaps it would be more true to say that he likely did not fit in at all. He had an unusual accent and he wasn’t a citizen, although he applied for citizenship in 1867. He is known to have waited on blacks in his store, which would be evidence enough for angry whites to decide that he was the enemy. We have no record that the lynching was about his Jewishness. Rather, it was more likely over his friendliness to the freed men and women in Franklin.

So why write all this on my “Basic Judaism” blog? I am writing to say that it is absolutely imperative that we all keep learning. I was so certain that I knew “all about” Franklin and it turns out that I knew only the parts of the story that I had been told.

God gave us brains. We can continue learning past age 13.  Whether the conversation is about race in America or the situation in Israel, we have to keep our ears open for the story we have not yet learned. If we only listen to the stories we like, we limit ourselves and do an injustice to others. Instead of framing things as “our” side of the story and “their” side of the story, it is time we recognized that we are in all the stories – together. When the two “sides” don’t match, maybe there is still more to learn.

So what’s my teshuvah plan? I’m going to keep learning for my own knowledge, but I won’t stop there. I’m gathering information about how best I can support education about the journey from slavery to freedom, so that the next generation will be less ignorant than I was.

For all the questions we have failed to ask, O God, forgive us! Let us go forward seeking both shalom (peace) and tzedek (justice.)

Traditions of Judaism: Online Class Starts Sunday, 4/8

Image: Ethiopian Israeli Jews celebrate the holiday of Sigd in 2008. (Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, some rights reserved.)

The Spring term of  Intro to the Jewish Experience class starts Sunday at 3:30pm Pacific Time.

This segment of the class is “Traditions of Judaism.” We will learn about many of the communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how they came to be distinct. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism, Jews of Color, the Prayer Book [Siddur] and the service, and finish up with Jewish food customs.

Here is a list of topics, by week:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. Synagogue & Siddur
  3. What’s Going On in the Service?
  4. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Ashkenazi Judaism: History & Culture
  6. Mizrahi and Other Jewish Communities
  7. North American Judaism
  8. Judaism & Food Traditions / What’s Next for You?

The class is also available by via recordings if you are busy on Sunday afternoons. Lectures are only a part of the class; we use a Facebook group for discussions and all students are welcome to schedule online one-on-one sessions with Rabbi Adar.

To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. If you are interested in the offline Wednesday night class in Oakland, CA, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog. Those links will also give you more specific info on tuition, scheduling, and locations.

This class (either on- or off-line) is the Spring portion of a three part series that can be taken in any order. Every class also works as a stand-alone entity, for those who already have some knowledge of Judaism but want to enrich their learning on a particular area. (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.) The course is not a conversion class; it is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the varieties of Jews in the world and their traditions.

I love teaching “Intro” – it’s my passion. If diversity of Jewish experience interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

Staying Sane in the Age of Trump

Image: The word “stress” written in red pencil.  (pedrofigueras/pixabay)

A publication called Student Loan Hero reported in January that 60% of Americans are feeling stressed over the Trump Administration. Their survey was limited to questions about people’s financial fears. Add to that all the people worried about the future of democracy, those fearful of nuclear war with North Korea, and all those worrying about the wild stories circulating in the news, and it’s a stressful, stressful time.

How can we possibly manage all this stress?

I am a firm believer in the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.  – Reinhold Niebuhr

There are many things that I cannot control right now. One way to lower my stress is to take each thing that worries me and ask: “Can I do anything about this?” If the answer is “no” then I will be happier if I set it aside for a while. (I find, when I’m in a worrying mood, that telling myself I’m setting things aside “for now” is one way to assure myself that if the situation changes, I can get back to worrying about it.)

So, the next thing: are there mitzvot I can do?

This is only a partial list – there are lots and lots of mitzvot that can fill my life with holiness and meaning, and make the world a better place in the process.

We learn from our blessings that God “sanctifies us with mitzvot” – that is, that doing mitzvot properly will make us better people. I like to think that each mitzvah I do helps build me up for the day when I am called on for a larger, more difficult mitzvah. Each mitzvah is a little soul-workout that makes me stronger.

When the moment comes that I will need “the courage to change the things I can,” I want to be ready. So in the meantime, I will do mitzvot!