We Must Not Stop Caring

The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from npr.org. I know that many of you are, like me, horrified at these reports.

I have been told that these camps existed during the Obama administration. If so, shame on us- this policy does not fit with my understanding of what America is supposed to be. We are slamming the door not only to immigrants like our own ancestors, but slamming doors on refugees from violence, people seeking asylum from terrible danger. I don’t care when it started; I want it to stop, and to be replaced by a fair and coherent immigration policy, something that both Republican and Democratic administrations have so far failed to produce.

I’ve written letters and made calls for months, and the news has only gotten worse. I’ve sent donations, and seen no progress. It is very, very easy to get weary, to decide that nothing will help, and to feel how tired I am of all this worry and activity. That weariness is a temptation to stop caring so much.

Ever since I first heard about the so-called detainment camps and the separation of children from their parents, I have protested it using the verse Deuteronomy 10:19: “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I’ve quoted those words so often, with so little result, that they have begun to seem meaningless.

Verses do that sometimes. They become rote, syllables that I repeat. At that point I step back and look at the larger context of the thing I’ve been quoting:

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.

You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Listen to the violence in that passage! “Cut away the thickening about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more.” This verse is sometimes translated literally as “circumcise your hearts” but I prefer this translation because it brings the metaphor closer – we are not talking about brit milah here (upon which we moderns can get sidetracked into debate) – we’re talking about heart surgery!

We who have been sending in our tax dollars to pay agents to orphan children by taking them from their parents —

We who have been leaving mothers and fathers weeping for their children —

We who have been treating strangers like animals, caging them and denying them basic needs like soap and toothbrushes —

We who have been doing this out of fear (“they will rape our women”) or out of greed (“they will get our jobs”) need to change our hearts today!

We who have acquiesced to it by blaming the bad stuff on the president and his people, by saying, “I didn’t do that” or “that’s not US!” need to change our hearts today!

O God, who knows the hearts of all, please help us cut away the calluses on our hearts, please help us to care. Help our caring to find a better way: a just and coherent immigration policy, with the support it needs to succeed.

The worse the news, the longer it goes on, the more urgent it is that we care and that we continue taking action. If you would like a list of possible actions you might take to care and to act, Slate Magazine recently posted an excellent list.

We must not stop caring!

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Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment

Image: Stacks of coins that appear to be sprouting seedlings. (Pixabay)

On June 21 I had the pleasure of returning to Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV, the first congregation I served as a new rabbi, right out of school. Rabbi Sanford Akselrad was kind enough to invite me to preach.

I talked about a topic dear to me: the mitzvah of tzedakah. The title of the sermon was “Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment.” Since I generally preach from an outline rather than a full text, to keep my words and delivery fresh, I can’t reproduce the sermon here. However, I can give you the gist of it.

We usually talk about mitzvot as commandments or sacred duties: something we do. However, there is another angle from which too see mitzvot. Mitzvot are actions we take that also cause change within us.

Notice the blessings we say before performing a mitzvah:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who sanctifies us with mitzvot, and has commanded us to immerse ourselves in the words of Torah.

— Blessing before the Study of Torah

Before a mitzvah, when we say this blessing, we say that God makes us holy through our performance of the mitzvah. That is quite a claim.

So how does this work?

Take tzedakah, for instance: we normally think of it as our sacred duty to give money for justice or for the relief of suffering. We might think that tzedakah is all about the other person.

But it is also a powerful tool for human spiritual development. Let me explain with a story.

I have a little dog, Gabi. She does not particularly like potato chips, but if we have them, she manages to get one. She grabs a chip and runs a little distance off, hovering over the chip. If any other dog approaches, she growls. If I tell her to drop it, she will very grudgingly give it to me. As long as she has the chip she will not eat it, instead guarding it no matter what other fun thing might be going on.

In short, she makes herself miserable guarding that chip.

Look at the word “miserable.” What do the first five letters spell?

Tzedakah is the sacred duty to give money to a suffering human being, or to an agent who will help suffering beings. It is also a powerful antidote to miserliness, the misery that comes from hanging on too tightly to money.

When we give tzedakah, we remind ourselves that we actually have ENOUGH, enough that we can give away a bit. How much we give depends on our means. Jewish tradition teaches us not to give so much that we endanger ourselves. No, we are only commanded to give a little.

Giving that little bit will remind us that we have more power than we realize. One little tzedakah payment may be small, but when it combines with others, it transforms lives. It can save a person from starving to death. It can pay legal fees to free a prisoner. It can pay tuition so a person can learn and eventually support themselves.

That is POWER.

When we give tzedakah in its higher forms, when we give anonymously, we can fight back against our need for attention and approval. Maimonides teaches us that the mitzvah is fulfilled even if we give a tiny amount, grudgingly, and demand big thanks and a brass nameplate. But it is much more meritorious, he tells us, to give anonymously and to do so without public recognition. That kind of giving trains us away from narcissism. When we give quietly, we cultivate a true humility and become a better person.

So there it is: tzedakah may be the mitzvah of giving, but we still can receive much in return. As the blessing says, God gave us mitzvot to make us holy, to make us better people. In the case of tzedakah, it can take something that can be the source of tremendous stress and anxiety, and transform it into goodness in the world and in ourselves.

Shabbat shalom!

Double Vision: Beha’alotecha

Image: Eyeglasses, a blurred page. (By Free-Photos /Pixabay)

Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) is a study in pairs, a study in contrasts. God guides the people as a cloud by day, and as fire by night, yet within those two manifestations are another set of pairs. A cloud may guide, but it also obscures; fire may guide, but as the portion shows, it may also kill and terrorize. There are those that are ritually pure for Passover, and those who are ritually impure who need a way to observe the mitzvah.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild points out the contrast between the black skin of the Cushite woman, and the whitening of Miriam’s skin with tzra’at. Miriam, a woman is powerless to do anything about her punishment the skin disease, which contrasts with Aaron and Moses, who pray for Miriam’s healing. Indeed, there is also a contrast between silence and speech in this passage: Miriam sins with her speech, and the Cushite woman is silent in the text.

Perhaps more than anything, this portion illustrates the inclination of the human mind to divide things into binaries. Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, in a lecture on ethical decision-making at HUC in Los Angeles, taught me that human beings tend to frame our choices as “this” or “that,” but a good counselor will assist people in seeing as many alternatives as possible. In that way, we can escape the illusion of black-and-white, and see our world in its true colors. It is important to look beyond the yes/no or this-one/that-one binary in order to see the true spectrum of our options.

Chanukah in June!

Image: The cycle of the Jewish Year, depicted as a wheel. The spring holidays are at the top, the fall months are at the bottom. (source, provenance uncertain.)

The Jewish year is not just a big circle that goes around and around. It is full of echoes and connections across the year, and this week’s Torah portion is an excellent example of those connections.

The Torah reading for Parashat Naso in the book of Numbers contains readings that we will read again during Chanukah. Why? This portion contains the description of the consecration of the Mishkan [tabernacle.] Chanukah is the holiday when we celebrate the reconsecration of the Temple in Jerusalem, after the victory of the Maccabees.

We don’t have a full description of the reconsecration of the Temple, but it was almost certainly echoed the consecration ritual outlined in Numbers 7.

The Wikipedia article Naso (parsha) lays it all out so succinctly that I’m just going to quote it here:

Numbers 7:1–17 is the Torah reading for the first day; Numbers 7:18–29 is the Torah reading for the second day; Numbers 7:24–35 is the Torah reading for the third day; Numbers 7:30–41 is the Torah reading for the fourth day; Numbers 7:36–47 is the Torah reading for the fifth day; Numbers 7:42–47 is the second Torah reading for the sixth day of Hanukkah, which, because it falls on Rosh Chodesh, has Numbers 28:1–15 as its first reading; Numbers 7:48–59 is the Torah reading for the seventh day when it does not fall on Rosh Chodesh; and Numbers 7:48–53 is the second Torah reading for the seventh day when it does fall on Rosh Chodesh, in which case Numbers 28:1–15 is the first reading; and Numbers 7:54–8:4 is the Torah reading for the eighth day. When a day of Hanukkah falls on a Sabbath, however, the regular weekly Torah reading for that Sabbath is the first Torah reading for that day, and the following readings from Parashah Naso are the maftir Torah readings: Numbers 7:1–17 is the maftir Torah reading for the first day; Numbers 7:18–23 is the maftir Torah reading for the second day; Numbers 7:24–29 is the maftir Torah reading for the third day; Numbers 7:30–35 is the maftir Torah reading for the fourth day; Numbers 7:36–41 is the maftir Torah reading for the fifth day; Numbers 7:42–47 is the maftir Torah reading for the sixth day of Hanukkah, which, because it falls on Rosh Chodesh, has Numbers 28:9–15 as its sixth aliyahNumbers 7:48–53 is the maftir Torah reading for the seventh day; and Numbers 7:54–8:4 is the maftir Torah reading for the eighth day.

Naso (parsha) Wikipedia

A word about Jewish Wikipedia: Some writer/editors have put a lot of work into the articles about Judaism in Wikipedia. I find them to be generally reliable, but that’s because I double-check anything I find there. Wikipedia is not a bad place to look for sources about Jewish topics – but the real meat is in the footnotes and references. I don’t recommend quoting it without checking the source. Mistakes happen, typos happen, and I have seen errors there from time to time. Some of the writers include all movements of Judaism in their articles, and some have “attitude” about whichever movement isn’t theirs.

To bend a familiar saying a bit, Caveat lector! Let the reader beware! Or if you prefer it in Hebrew:

!קורא, תיזהר

Bamidbar: Connection v. Chaos

Image: The wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park (Photo: Ruth Adar)

This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar, “In the wilderness.” The portion talks about census-taking and the organization of the Israelite camp in the wilderness of Sinai.

I love the contrast: the Israelites are surrounded by wilderness, and God directs them to organize themselves. It’s another version of the Creation story in Genesis. The earth is “unformed and void” (Genesis 1:1) and what does God do? God brings order out of the disorder. Similarly, at the beginning of the Book of Numbers God speaks to Moses in the wilderness, in a place of disorganization, and directs Moses to take a census and organize the Israelites.

First of all, this is a persistent vision in Torah, echoing the Creation story. Order is preferred to disorder. Life cannot be sustained and protected without some organization.

Second, “wilderness” is more than a place. The Israelites had been delivered from enslavement in Egypt – a narrow place, Mitzrayim – and now they were out in the wide world, free but disorganized. They will not survive the challenges of wilderness without organizing themselves. God provides them direction for doing that, ordering that the tribes each have a specific place to live, and assigning them specific tasks.

We Americans have a fantasy about the self-sufficient loner, or the self-sufficient family, living somewhere in the West, carving a living from the land. Bamidbar is a different vision: individuals as part of families, which in turn are related as tribes, and it is the cooperation of all that makes for survival in the midbar, the wild lands of Sinai. Alone they would be vulnerable to wild animals and raiders. In a tightly organized camp, they were safe, indeed, they were powerful.

In every life there are times when the midbar, the wilderness, is a powerful metaphor. The world feels hostile and frightening: how will we live? How will we survive challenges from people who want to steal our food, our belongings, maybe even our lives? What will we eat? How will we have enough money to live, and pay our taxes too? How will we keep our jobs, if it seems like all the jobs go to someone else? How will we be safe from crime, when it seems to be everywhere?

These worries can be overwhelming. It may be tempting to let the fear overtake us, to see everyone as an enemy, to go out into the wilderness and try to make it on our own, away from the scary people.

The truth is that survival comes in community, in relationships. The Israelites fought among themselves all the time (sometimes with terrible results) but God ordered them to stay together, to organize themselves, to learn how to get along. We are interconnected: we are social beings.

Let us resist the urge to hide in our houses, to hide behind our screens (TV screens, computer screens, tablets, smartphones) and instead, let us connect with the real people around us. Let’s get together and share food, share fears, share dreams. Let’s get together and work for a better world.

For make no mistake, we are living in times that feel like wilderness. It’s no place or time to be alone.

A Modern-Day Sodom?

Image: The Sonoran Desert in Arizona (by icondigital / Pixabay)

The Washington Post recently printed a first-person account by a geographer named Scott Warren. He has been charged with a felony for giving water and food to refugees in the Sonoran desert. For saving lives, Warren faces up to 20 years in prison.

The policy of routing refugees through the deadliest parts of the desert goes back to the Clinton Administration, by the way. The Trump Administration has added the enforcement of rules against offering any assistance, even water, to those trekking through that desert.

Scott Warren’s story reminded me immediately of a midrash taught by our sages. They told a story they told about their notion of the people most displeasing to God, so displeasing that they merited being burned alive along with their entire region. It is the story of the people of Sodom.

The first mention of the story is in Genesis 13:

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt.
So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;
Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.
Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the LORD.

Genesis 13:10-13

Next we get the well-known story in Genesis 18-19, in which sends two “men” (angels) to investigate an “outcry” from Sodom. It begins:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Genesis 18: 20-22

Abraham then famously bargained for the lives of Sodom, getting God to agree to spare the city if 10 good people could be found there.

The angels who “went on” to Sodom were greeted by Lot, who was anxious to get them out of the public square and to conceal them in his house. He does that because Sodom is hateful to strangers, and he knows something terrible will happen to them if they are not quickly out of sight. Sure enough, a crowd forms at Lot’s door, clamoring to rape the men. Lot refuses to release them to the crowd. Later, God rains fire down on the city, and it is completely destroyed because 10 good men could not be found. (Genesis 19)

The sages told more stories about Sodom, fleshing out the tale in the Torah. What had the people done to merit death by fire? Here are some of the stories:

R. Levi said: [God said]: ‘Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden (ribah) does not permit Me to keep silent.’
For it once happened that two girls went down to draw water from a well.
One [young woman] said to the other, ‘Why are you so pale?’
‘My family has no more food left and we are ready to die,’ she replied.
What did she [the first young woman] do? She filled her pitcher with flour and they exchanged [their pitchers], each taking the other’s.
When they [the Sodomites] discovered this, they took and burnt her.
Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Even if I desired to be silent, justice for that young girl does not permit Me to keep silent.

Genesis Rabbah 49:6

and another, about the cruelty to poor men:

If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar (coin,) upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each [resident] came and took back his [dinar]. 

Sanhedrin 109b

There is another story about a young woman who tried to give help to a hungry man:

A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. When the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written, And the Lord said, The cry ( זעקת ) of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great: whereon Rab Judah commented in Rab’s name: On account of the maiden [ribah]

Sanhedrin 109b

And a later midrash tells us about a variety of cruel practices:

Rabbi Zeira said: “The people of Sdom were the wealthiest people in the world since they were from the fattest and best of the land and all of their early needs could be derived from it, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust” (Job 28:6) When a person wanted to go out and get for himself vegetables, he would say to his servant, take for me an issar worth of greens. He would go and take for him greens and find in its place gold, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust.” And silver would come out of it, as it is written: “There is a mine for silver.” (Job 28:1) Precious stones and jewels would come out of it: “Its rocks are a source of sapphire.” (verse 6); bread would be brought forth from it: “earth out of which food grows” (verse 5); and they did not trust in the shadow of their Creator but rather in their wealth; for their wealth pushed aside their fear of Heaven: “men who trust in their riches” (Psalms 49:7)

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: They were not sufficiently concerned with the honor of their Creator to provide food for guests and strangers but rather they would cut of the branches of fruit trees above the fruit so as not to provide benefit to birds of the heavens: “No bird of prey knows the path of it.” (Job 28:7)

Rabbi Netanel said: They set up as their judges false judges who ruled with regard to any guest or stranger who entered Sodom, that they should defraud them in their crooked judgment and set them out naked, as it is written: “And the stranger they cheated without justice.” (Ezekiel 22:29) And satisfied with the harvest of the land – they lived in security and peace and quiet without fear of war from their surroundings satiated with all good things and not strengthening the hand of either the poor or the impoverished with food: “Behold this was the son of Sodom your sister.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

– Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 25

For these crimes, God blasted the city Sodom, leaving nothing but a salty mineral desert and a deadly sea beside it. To this day, if you visit the Dead Sea, you will see nothing alive there.

I fear for our souls.

Goodbye/Hello, Dream Job

Image: My first Intro class, Fall, 2009.

I’m sitting in the classroom at Congregation Beth El, and the clock says 15 minutes to 7. There are 45 minutes before class begins.

This isn’t an ordinary class. It’s the last class of the year, and we’ll talk about Jews and Food: kashrut, favorite foods, strange foods, swap recipes, and then we’ll say goodbye.

This one is a big goodbye for me, because it is my last Wednesday night Intro class. I’ve taught this class for years, and this past year I’ve realized that it is beyond my physical abilities to teach. Even with my assistant, Jessica, to help, I wind up spending the next day in bed.

I’ll still teach online, and in fact I hope to ramp up my online teaching. That process begins with Tikkun Leil Shavuot Online in just a couple of weeks. There will be more interactive text study, done in shorter series or even one-time events. I’m not done teaching, I’m just moving on to something new. Watch this space!

But this is the last night of something I have enjoyed as my dream job. My wife started pointing out to me two years ago that it was taking a lot out of me; this year I finally had to agree. We age, things change. That’s OK.

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:

A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;

A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up;

A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing;

A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces;

A time for seeking and a time for losing, A time for keeping and a time for discarding;

A time for ripping and a time for sewing, A time for silence and a time for speaking;

A time for loving and a time for hating; A time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

So, it’s time. In a few minutes there will be about 30 people pouring into this room, and we’ll talk about food. Then we’ll talk about ways to continue learning, and I will hand them off to their rabbis and their communities. And it will be good.