Counting our Days

My column for the upcoming May-June bulletin, posted now as we begin the counting. Today is One Day of the Omer.

For much of the period covered by this issue of our synagogue bulletin, Jews will be engaged in a practice called sefirat ha’omer, the “counting of the sheaf.” Not a useful translation for conveying much meaning, I know. The practice is based on these verses from Torah:

The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Eternal One for acceptance in your behalf; the priest shall elevate it on the day after the sabbath…and from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering– the day after the sabbath– you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week– fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal One (Lev 23:9-11;15-16).

While nearly two millennia have passed since the days when offerings of grain were our mode of worship, we still “count the omer,” memorializing the ancient practice.

Counting the omer is a reminder of our history, and it is much more. By counting the days from Pesach to Shavuot, we do a number of things.

First, counting links the two festivals together. Shavuot, which celebrates the giving and receiving of Torah, only makes sense in the context of our liberation from Egypt; our liberation can best be understood as setting down avdut, slavery, in order to enter a covenant of avodah, service. The Rabbis creatively played with the Hebrew word for “engraved” (as in the words on the tablets), charut, reading it as cheyrut, “freedom.” To their minds, freedom is not a free-for-all, but disciplined choice. Pesach and Shavuot: you can’t have one without the other.

Next, counting reinforces a sense of forward motion from one holiday to the next. I wrote two months ago about the broad sweep of this holiday season, beginning at Purim and ending with Shavuot. From Pesach to Shavuot, that sweep is explicit: “One….two….three…” Along the way we encounter the seventh day of Pesach, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the State of Israel’s Memorial and Independence Days, and an ancient festival that falls on day thirty-three.

In my experience, the period of the sefirah is, most of all, an opportunity to cultivate awareness. Each night as dusk falls (or, if we’re regular davveners, as part of the evening service), we stop and take notice of the passage of time. We recite a blessing, and take note of the number of days that have passed since Pesach. If the omer period is about linking the festivals and propelling us forward, the moment of counting is about slowing us down. “Teach us to number our days; let us cultivate hearts of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

“Always Public, Never Partisan: Kosher and Treif Politics at Shul”

D’var Torah at Judea Reform Congregation, April 1, 2016.

The Priests were our teachers and guides in the realms of both ritual and ethics, and we are currently in the middle of their book, Leviticus. This week’s portion, called shemini, includes among other things, rules regarding which animals were considered proper, or kosher, for consumption.

Much ink has been spilled in the worlds of traditional Jewish scholarship and also in the academy trying to understand just why animals are on the menu, or off. Some see allegorical lessons whereby we ingest only animals whose character traits we find appealing. For others, kashrut amounts to an ancient health code. Some believe the purpose was simply to create an idiosyncratic diet as a way of cultivating group cohesion (you aren’t going to mix with others if you can’t dine with them!). Some see it as a way of cultivating compassion, as if to say, “your appetites conflict with the very lives of other beings, and so your appetites need to be limited.” And for others, the whole point is that the list is arbitrary: it’s there to teach discipline.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that to live within these particular mitzvot requires a well-developed capacity for havdalah, or “discernment.” The verse near the end of Leviticus 11, the lengthy chapter describing the various species, says it this way: l’havdil bein hatame uvein hatahor — “to discern, or distinguish, between that which is improper and that which is proper.” Continue reading

Remembering Amalek…and Remembering to Return

D’var Torah at Judea Reform, March 18, 2016…

The Shabbat just before Purim is called shabbat zachor, the Sabbath of “Remember.” It gets its name from the opening words of a special Torah passage (Deut 25:17-19) which tells us to “remember what Amalek did to us on our journey.” As Purim approaches, we note the connection between Amalek and Haman, and many a sermon on Shabbat Zachor has called attention to the need for Jews to be ever-vigilant in the world, on guard against the oldest hatred of all. Continue reading

Reflections on the Detroit Debate: finding each other’s faces again

Last-Minute Larry. I came by my childhood nickname honestly, preferring the rush that accompanied a tight deadline to the calm sense of accomplishment that came with finishing my assignments early. Not much has changed, I guess. Sharon Halperin, who directs the Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education of North Carolina gave us several weeks’ notice that we’d be welcoming teachers from around the state to our services this evening as part of their attendance at a two-day workshop entitled “Witnessing the Witnesses: Teaching the Holocaust in North Carolina.” Still, my message was crafted in the aftermath of this week’s Super Tuesday primaries. Oh, why deny it? My message was crafted in the aftermath of last night’s Republican debate on Fox. Continue reading

Honoring our Holy Chevrei

Our Tradition (BT Sotah 14a) records the teaching of Rabbi Chamma, the son of Rabbi Chaninah on the verse from the book of Deuteronomy (13:5), “Follow Adonai your God, revere God, keep the commandments and obey God’s voice; this is how to serve God and hold fast to the divine.” Rabbi Chamma quotes the verse and then asks the question, “what does it mean to follow God? Can a human being actually follow the Divine Presence?” His answer is that “follow” is a metaphor for “emulate.” Read the text, and see what God does in its stories. Then, go out and do those things. Continue reading

The sea, the sky, the Throne of Glory

Posting a Shelach Lecha commentary in February? That’s odd! But one way of working with the sadness that accompanies the news that the tallit which was the inspiration for this d’var torah seems to have gone missing. I’m bummed about losing an item that I’d grown pretty attached to over several retreats and lots of sweet mornings in between…and absolutely aware that it’s totally replaceable. 

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As for the stones on the beach, forget it.
Each one could be set in gold.

Mary Oliver
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Mary Oliver’s poem, “This World,” takes its readers on a tour of natural phenomena (as so many of her poems do). It invites them to notice just how extraordinary the seemingly everyday really is. Tulips, peonies, birds, aspens, even stones, all bear witness to the world’s complexity (what the poem deems its “fanciness.”). And all poems, however ordinarily they might begin, ultimately find the morning sun glimmering everything (Why I Wake Early, p. 27).

Sometimes, we can look at something which is, at first glance, nothing special, but see in it something deeper and more meaningful. This is what’s behind the ritual of tzitzit, the fringes which are prescribed for our garments near the end of this week’s parashah, Shelach Lecha:

YHWH said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; see it and remember all the commandments of YHWH and do them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I YHWH am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God:I, YHWH your God(Num 15:37-41).

For the Sages (BT Menachot 43b), the progression of actions occasioned by the presence of the tzitzit was central: “Seeing leads to remembering, and remembering leads to doing.” Just having the fringes in one’s field of view is beneficial. When we see them, we remember.

But remember what? That’s where the blue comes in. From the same page of Talmud: “It is taught that Rabbi Meir said, ‘Why is blue different from all other colors? Because it is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky, like the Throne of Glory.'” Just as the fact of the tzitzit sets in motion a process (see=>remember=>do), so does the particular quality of the tzitzit set in motion of chain of awareness (sea=>sky=>Throne of Glory).

And isn’t that mindfulness? Noticing the very fact of something, inquiring into its nature and quality, and paying attention to what arises in the wake of the noticing and inquiry? Ultimately, when we’re at our best, the noticing and remembering lead us to act in ways that bring more compassion into the world, and to alleviate suffering.

I have a small, well-worn stone that I keep close at hand. It comes from the shoreline by Nahal Achziv, in northern Israel. When I see it, I remember so much. I remember picking it up on the last day of my 2007 summer sabbatical. I remember how connected I felt to my family in that moment, as my three young children combed the beach for smooth stones and shells while my wife and I stood at the water’s edge, reflecting on the months we’d spent living in Israel. And I remember the blueness of the water, and of the sky. It was a moment of wholeness and blessing. And all it takes to return there is a look at that stone, or the feel of it between my fingers.

Perhaps it’s not for nothing that a memento of the Achziv shoreline prompts those associations and memories. Literary sleuthing and archeological research alike point to Israel’s northernmost coast as the likely habitat of the chilazon, the animal from which the blue dye was extracted in Talmudic times. Experts identify the chilazon as the murex trunculus snail, and evidence of robust dyeing operations along the northern coast are an important piece of puzzle. Today, convinced by the evidence that we have the right source and the right formula, many talit-wearers are bringing the blue fringe back.

For some of us who wear tekhelet, the blue string serves as a powerful mindfulness tool. I began wearing tekhelet a few years ago, and have found that it adds great meaning to my practice. I’ve spent the last few weeks watching with pride as my oldest child (who collected shells and stones at Achziv all those years ago) designed and created her own tallit in honor of her Confirmation. Her tzitzit arrived from Israel yesterday, and she’ll tie them during the week of Shelach Lecha. May they serve her well.

A stone on the beach. A thread of blue string. Stars in the sky. A breath, rising and falling. Wherever our attention rests, careful investigation of what arises can yield happy results. As I sit, and pray, during the week of Shelach Lecha, may my seeing lead to remembering, and my remembering lead to action. May I find the morning sun glimmering all that I meet.

May it be so for me, for you, and for all of us. 

“Dealing shrewdly,” in ancient Egypt and present-day America

January 1, 2016

The Honorable Loretta E. Lynch
The Attorney General
Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building
950 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001

Dear Madam Attorney General:

Six months ago to the day I had the privilege of spending ninety minutes with you on the campus of North Carolina Central University. Your office brought together law enforcement officials, clergy, and human rights leaders for a round-table conversation about justice and civil rights. Charleston had just happened, churches were burning, and the voting rights trial was about to commence in Winston-Salem. It happens to have been my first day on the job as as Rabbi of Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, so I remember it well.

Your charge to us in the room that day was to hold you and your department accountable and to keep the lines of communication open. It is for that reason that I write, adding my voice to the many others calling for a broadened investigation into the conduct of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty regarding the killing of Tamir Rice by Officer Timothy Loehmann. Tamir’s family deserves better than they received from the local authorities. If ever there were a case that cries out for a trial (at least), it is this one. Continue reading

From the Rabbi’s Study, January 2016

My January/February JRC Bulletin Message…

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9)

For me, it’s that verse that most accurately describes the Jewish mission. To empathize with the marginalized, and to turn our empathy into action, is what we’re all about. Our texts, our holidays, our daily prayers….all of the particularly Jewish things about being Jewish point us toward that universal truth. Calling out oppression when we see it and standing with the oppressed against their tormentors: this is what it means to be a Jew. Continue reading

In-stalled


My installation remarks from Friday night, December 11. I had no idea, when I decided to craft these remarks around the seasons, and to teach about impermanence by looking to the trees, that our Religious School had created a huppah in my honor that teaches the very same thing, in the same way.  It was presented to the congregation as part of Sunday Morning’s Installation.

 Lots of folks have asked me, “Haven’t you been our Rabbi for quite some time? What changes on December 11?” And the answers are, “yes,” and “not much.” Certainly, some of the big transitional moments are already behind us. My election. Our first service together. Our first High Holidays. Other moments of transition are still out in the future. We haven’t yet celebrated Purim together, or Pesach, or Kabbalat Torah, or an Annual Meeting, to name but a few “firsts” that are still in the future. My colleague Barry Block has written about transition not really being finished until a rabbi has been in his or her position for two full years, and I’m inclined to believe him.

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A gift from the synagogue, created by Galia Goodman

And yet, here we are, celebrating my “installation.” Lots of jokes about the similarities between rabbis and large appliances are just waiting to be made, but the truth be told, “install” is a verb that was applied to members of the clergy long before it was applied to washers and dryers. To “install” something is to put it in its stall. And clerics in the Middle Ages had semi-enclosed chairs called stalls in which they sat as a part of the choir. “Installation” was the act of getting into one’s stall for the first time. It is, essentially, the act of taking one’s seat, of settling in. Continue reading