Begging for Mercy

Image: Two hands writing a letter. (Stevanovik/Shutterstock)

The atrocity at our southern border on November 25 fills me with tears and rage. It is wrong to use tear gas on little children. The fact that these children were in the arms of parents who wished to apply for asylum from violence in Central American makes it more, not less wrong. 

Customs and Border Protection agents used tear gas against migrants attempting to seek asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry at the Mexico/California border. Note: these people were doing nothing illegal. It is legal to apply for asylum. Our government has systems in place for evaluating the stories people bring, and the danger they actually face. Then, after evaluating their stories, some people get to stay and many people do not.

I have known many people from Central America. My Spanish teacher in college was from Guatemala. My son worked in orphanages in Costa Rica during his summers in college. I’ve had friends from Honduras and Nicaragua. They are not monsters. They are people like you and me. 

I could write, as I have written before, about the Biblical commandments to welcome guests, to be kind to strangers, but you have already read all that. The Torah is clear: we should not be doing this stuff, or anything like it.

Yet today my tax dollars paid for Customs and Border Protection personnel to fire tear gas rounds at these people, ordinary people. People fleeing trouble, carrying their children. We tear gassed children.

Tonight I wrote postcards to my Senators and to my Representative and I begged them to do something to stop this cruelty. Tomorrow I will phone them to make the same point.

Please join me in pleading for mercy for these poor people. They have not done anything to us. They are not doing anything illegal. 

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We Can Change – Here’s Proof!

Image:  Me, standing in the doorway to our home using my walker. Welcome to Beit Adar/Burnett! (Photo by Linda Burnett)

Back in 2013, I wrote a blog post about my desire to become more hospitable:

Excerpts from The Hospitality Challenge: I Dare You!:

…I am in the process of moving into a new home. I’m organizing it with two goals in mind.  (1) It needs to be accessible enough that my honey and I can get old in it, and disabled friends can come to visit with dignity. (2) It needs to be set up like the Tent of Abraham, to welcome friends and strangers who will become new friends.

I am a teaching rabbi, and I admit, part of it is that I need to do more of my teaching in an environment that gentler on my own disabilities. But more of it is that I know this works, because it worked on me. Our home will not be a synagogue or a substitute for a synagogue. It will be a Jewish home, hospitably open to other people.  We’ll find them at synagogue, we’ll find them in class, we’ll find them when they wander into our lives. And they will be welcome. And then we will teach by example: you can do this. Invite someone over.

Linda and I are both introverts. This is going to require some stretching. That’s why I’m writing about it under the #BlogElul topic “Dare.”

Committing to ongoing hospitality requires daring from my introverted soul.  I worry that I’m an awful housekeeper, I’m not a very good cook, I tend to run around barefoot at home, the dogs will misbehave, what will we do if they don’t leave? what will I do if they criticize me? what if what if what if … and it simply doesn’t matter. I’m going to give this mitzvah a go.


Now, exactly five years later, I can tell you that I’ve changed. Linda and I regularly “have folks over” here at Beit Adar/Burnett, even though we are still introverts and my disabilities have continued to progress. We have regular “Pot Luck Dessert Havdalahs” and guests are a constant. I carefully do not think of it as “entertaining” – it’s the mitzvah of hakhnasat orchim, welcoming guests.

I have grown beyond (some of) my self-centered habits and worries. My disabilities have grown, but so has my world.

I brush aside whatever project is sprawled across the dining room table, and they enter. I apologize for whatever mess there is – once- and then I ignore it, because this is not about Better Homes & Gardens:  this is a holy place, our Jewish home.

Potluck Shabbat!

Image: An assortment of foods in colorful bowls. (Photo: fotosunny/Shutterstock)

I’m so excited! I love inviting my students to a potluck Shabbat evening, and I’ve sent out invitations for later this month.

I thought I’d share my “to-do” list here, in case any readers are interested in inviting friends for a potluck Shabbat. Hospitality is a mitzvah, remember – this is something you can do that will enrich your life, enrich your Shabbat, and build your community.

If you are thinking, “Oh no, my house is cluttered!” I will share with you that I am a haphazard housekeeper and practically a Queen of Clutter. I have decided not to let that stop me. If some room needs to be off limits, I shut the door.  If they see that I’m cluttery, well, that will let them feel better about their own housekeeping!

  1. Decide who to invite. If you are anxious about entertaining, keep it small. If you are comfortable feeding numbers, go for it. Either way, decide if you are also inviting significant others and children. If your house isn’t baby-proofed, you should warn parents about that.
  2. Choose a way to send invitations, and how you’ll keep track of numbers. I used Eventbrite, since I was inviting 36 people plus possible family folks. You might choose an online invitation service like Evite, or just do it via email or paper invitations. Or phone calls (for that retro feeling.)
  3. Plan your menu. I generally make a vegan main dish (black beans and brown rice  this month) and have challah, wine, and grape juice. I invite guests to bring a vegetarian side dish, salad, or dessert. I personally do not like to try to track what everyone is bringing, so we get what we get. I usually have a box of cookies ready if no one brings dessert. If you are not a cook, cheese pizza makes a nice main dish.
  4. Make your grocery list. Be sure to add to it paper napkins and plastic silverware and cups if you will need them. Also butter and/or honey for the challah.
  5. Check your kiddush cup or other ritual objects well ahead of time. Can you find them? Do they need polishing or de-waxing? Have you got Shabbat candles and matches?
  6. Got pets? Decide what their situation will be during the evening. Also, warn guests who may be allergic that you’ve got them.
  7. Have extra serving utensils ready. It’s amazing how many people get here and then realize they didn’t bring forks to serve their salad.
  8. Decide where people will put the food when they arrive. I have them put it directly on the table. Some people then sit at the table, and if there are more than 12 people (the max I can seat at one table) then I make sure I have chairs for the rest. They’ll spread out in the living room and on the patio.
  9. Plan some place where people can put coats, etc. I usually have them put them on my bed.
  10. Make sure you have a bentcher or other text for the blessings. Don’t rely on memory unless you are really sure of it.

On Friday:

  1. Set the table.
  2. Have the food ready. Be sure to have wine, grape juice, and water on the table.
  3. Welcome your guests!

One other thing it’s good to decide ahead of time; do you want help with clean up? What specific jobs can people do to help you with it? That way, when someone offers, you’ll be ready with something for them to do. I usually put a pot of water on the counter for silverware, so it is not piled in with everything else in the sink.

The first time I did hosted Shabbat dinner for friends, it felt like a huge big deal. I was nervous about the house, the food, the everything. And then, as my disabilities became more of a challenge, I quit doing it for a while, until the idea of a potluck occurred to me. Now I look forward to these evenings, which let my students get to know one another in a way they can’t in the classroom.

Shabbat shalom uv’tei avon!  

(Peaceful Sabbath and bon appetit!)

 

Re-Dedicating the Small Sanctuary

Image:  During Chanukah 2015, the Intro class lit chanukiot together. This year I forgot to take pictures.

My house sits in a mostly Christian neighborhood, surrounded by bright Christmas decorations. I love my neighbors’ lights, and look forward to them every year. My house, though, is different: there are no Christmas decorations, only a little electric chanukiah winking in the window by the front door.

Every Chanukah I rededicate my home to be a mikdash me-at, a little sanctuary of the God of Israel.

  • Is it safe for visitors? Well-lit outside?
  • Is it safe for all: how do we speak to and treat each other here?
  • Does it look like a Jewish home? Are there things that shouldn’t be here?
  • Are people who work here compensated fairly?
  • Do I practice hacnasat orchim, hospitality to guests?
  • What can I do to make it more of a place of Torah?

Last night I had twelve students over for Shabbat dinner. It was a big celebration for me.

When I got sick last year, I cancelled such a gathering because I didn’t have the strength to do it. Since then, the thought of cleaning and cooking, then cleaning again was completely overwhelming. But two weeks ago a student asked me shyly: “Could I come see how you do Shabbat dinner sometime?” I said, “Sure!” and emailed the class.

I have rededicated my home, and my self, to hospitality. As with last night, it will need to be modest: potlucks, instead of me cooking everything. I asked for and got help with set up and clean up. Even with all the delegation, I was a mess today – but a happy mess, because the mitzvah of hospitality is dear to my heart.

As I told my guests, I hope that every one of them hosts a Shabbat dinner for friends or family sometime soon. I pointed out my less-than-stellar housekeeping and said, “If I can have people over when things are not perfect, you can too.” Hachnasat orchim (hospitality to guests) is an important way to build Jewish community, one relationship at a time.

To whom or what are you rededicating yourself this week? Chanukah is about memory, but it is also about dedicating ourselves in the here and now, meeting the challenges of being Jewish in the world.

10 Ways to De-Militarize Your Holiday Table

Image:  Two people duel with table knives over a table and desserts. (Photo: lolostock/Shutterstock)

Dreading arguments at your holiday table? Jewish tradition teaches us that it is the responsibility of both the hosts and the guests to make such a gathering as pleasant as possible.

From an article on hospitality in the Virtual Jewish Library:

In Judaism, showing hospitality (hakhnasat orchim) to guests is considered a mitzvah. When one knows of strangers who are hungry or need a place to relax, it becomes a legal obligation. Some rabbis consider hakhnasat orchim (literally the “bringing in of strangers”) to be a part of gemilut hasadim (giving of loving kindness).

Guests also have responsibilities to the host. They are obligated to express gratitude for what the host has done for them:

Ben Zoma said: A good guest, what does he say? The host went to so much trouble on my behalf! He gave me so much food! How much wine did he bring before me! How many loaves [geluskaot] did he bring before me! All the effort that he expended, he expended only for me.

However, a bad guest, what does he say? What effort did the host expend? I ate only one piece of bread, I ate only one piece of meat and I drank only one cup of wine. All the effort that the host expended he only expended on behalf of his wife and children.

With regard to a good guest, what does Ben Zoma say? “Remember that you magnify his work, whereof men have sung” (Job 36:24); he praises and acknowledges those who helped him.  – Berakhot 58a

Here are some options for navigating contentious discussions at the holiday table:

  1. Focus on what you love about the people at the table. Challenge yourself to see the spark of the divine in every person at the table.
  2. If your family enjoys argument, by all means enjoy!
  3. If someone at the table finds argument terrifying, be gentle with them. Just accept that this is who they are, and offer them a hug, more pie, or the TV remote. Don’t be mad at them for not arguing; it just isn’t their game.
  4. If you are the person feeling terrified by arguments, remember: A person who seems angry may just be avoiding admitting (to themselves?) that they are afraid.
  5. If someone at the table expresses a feeling of existential threat (“It could mean nuclear war!” “We could wind up in the poorhouse!” etc) focus on their feelings rather than their logic. Saying, “You are being silly!” is actually quite cruel. They are scared.
  6. If someone at the table feels hope for the first time in a long time, respect their relief if only for the peace of the day, even if you think the thing that makes them feel hopeful is a sign of the coming apocalypse.
  7. Leave words like “bigot” or “idiot” out of the conversation. They never add value. The rabbis of Pirkei Avot tell us to “give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
  8. If someone says something you find bigoted, don’t feed the troll! Try, “Whew! I am sure you didn’t mean that the way it sounded! Let’s talk about something else.” Immediately offer a change of subject. Complimenting the food is always a safe change of subject: “This turkey is amazing, Aunt Ploni! What do you do to make it taste like this?”
  9. If someone is being a bully, don’t engage with them. Instead, turn to the person on the receiving end of the bullying and change the subject to something more pleasant. “The last time I saw you, you were excited about math club. How’s that going?” [The principle in both (8) and (9) is to give attention to people who are doing something beneficial, and to remove attention from people who are being jerks.]
  10. If all else fails, say “It’s Thanksgiving and I want to enjoy your company, not fight.” On Shabbat, I have been known to say, “Not on Shabbes. Next topic!” when a subject seemed likely to bring out the worst around the table.
  11. Remember: It’s only one day!

A Jewish Halloween?

Image: Two jack o’lanterns grinning in the dark. (fotomek/pixabay)

There’s a big bag of candy in my refrigerator, so it must be the week of Halloween.

Before I was Jewish, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. I loved wearing a costume, and I loved handing out candy at the door. After I became a Jew in my 40’s, it took me a while to sort out what I was going to do with Halloween.

My thoughts went like this:

I love Halloween! I am not going to give it up!

Halloween has its roots in both pagan practice and Catholic practice – it’s not for Jews.

— But I love Halloween!

Halloween is a holiday when we basically license people to do mischief – not very Jewish!

— But I love Halloween!

We have Purim for costumes, without the whole “trick or treat” protection racket.

— But I love Halloween!

… and so on.

I had no problem whatsoever letting go of Christmas, partly because it carried some bad memories, and partly because the religious aspect of it was quite real to me. Halloween was a lot harder to give up, because I had a lot of great Halloween memories, both as a child and as an adult, and its religious content was not as immediate to my experience.

However, I could not escape a simple fact: It isn’t a Jewish holiday, and there are things about it that are simply not right from a Jewish point of view.

After a lot of years of study and thought, I decided to celebrate Halloween as a time for hospitality. I don’t dress up. I don’t decorate. However, the kids who come to my door know that they can depend on me for some really high-quality candy – stuff that they like, or can trade to others for things they like more.  And I let my non-Jewish friends know that they are welcome to bring their children by for a safe treat. I admire their costumes, I hand out the goodies, and it’s a day of goodwill all around.

But come Purim – look out! You never know what crazy thing I’ll wear!

RavAdar
Who IS this guy?

Two Rabbis in a Parking Lot

Image: Rabbi Suzanne Singer and I took a very awkward selfie while we watched over the polling place for Election Protection. 11/8/2016

I was all set to write an elegiac post about my day working at the polls in Georgia. I spent the day sitting in parking lots, 150 feet from polling places, smiling and watching for people who were distressed.  My first shift was at a place where things ran properly and there wasn’t a lot to do (which is the best possible scenario.) At the second place, in the evening, I was helping at a poll where there were some small issues, but everything was resolved. There was beauty in the sight on so many people, rich and poor, brown and white, educated and not, each completely equal in that moment of casting their vote.

I met some wonderful people: pastors in Macon, folks who drove down from Atlanta to help, rabbis from all over the country. I forgot to bring business cards, so we exchanged emails so that we could stay in touch.

Then I drove off, to this hotel just south of Atlanta, because I have an early flight. I watched the election returns in this hotel room.

I spent the day with one America: a diverse group of people who banded together to protect the rights of citizens. I’m a lesbian, a Jew, a rabbi, a woman, and I’m white. I chatted over lunch with a white Christian pastor and an African American Christian pastor, and we made friends. We don’t agree about everything (we found a few of those things while we were chatting) but we can work together despite the differences.

Then tonight I saw another America: an America that chose to elect a man for President who talks about rounding up Muslims, who has been endorsed by the KKK, who has breathed new life into white supremacist organizations. He gave speeches in which he dog-whistled anti-Semitic tropes. I don’t think he actually believes many of the horrible things he said to get elected, but he appealed to the lowest impulses of my fellow citizens and they chose him.

I commit to reaching out: reaching out to all the people I know who will be panicked about this election. I’ve already sent notes to Muslim friends, to some transgender friends, to others I know who are feeling vulnerable. I don’t know exactly what lies ahead, but I know that we will need one another.