Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham, Opening Blessing

Fundraising Breakfast at Judea Reform Congregation, October 26, 2016.

May we bless this city, still too violent, with peace.

May we bless this city with our hands,
hands reaching out to people coming home,
guiding them on their path of reconciliation.

May we bless this city with our hearts,
hearts bearing witness to each needless death,
Moving us from vigil to action.

May we bless this city with our eyes,
eyes open to the aggressions,
big and small, intentional and unconscious,
that arise from our own bias and that of others.

May we bless this city with our voices,
voices that demand an end to the school-to-prison pipeline
voices that insist upon meaningful criminal justice reform,
voices that shout from the rooftops, not one more gun death.

May our hands, our hearts, our eyes, and our voices
be the blessings we so badly need.

Amen.

Standing for Voting Rights

Min hameitzar karati yah; anani bamerchav yah.
I cried out to God because everything was so cramped; God answered: “Make the circle bigger!”

Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifney Adonai Eloheychem, our Torah reading begins. Before we read, we’ll break down a few key verses and see what they have to teach us about turning away from narrow-minded ideas and the narrowly-drawn lines that enforce them, and embracing a much broader view of who we are as a nation. Continue reading

Choice

Kol Nidrei Night, 5777/October 11, 2016

I heard from several of you that the visual aids in last week’s sermons were the very best part, which I am choosing to take as a compliment. I thought I’d bring one into this evening’s sermon as well.

_images_uploads_album_Album_Cover_7It’s a copy of “This is Where I Live,” a 2016 release from Soul legend William Bell, and side one, track one provides us with a foundational text for this evening’s teaching. The song is called “The Three of Me,” and it begins with these words:

 

Last night I had a dream
and there were three of me.
There was the man I was, the man I am,
and the man I want to be.

I love that image. Life’s journey is one on which we can and do grow, and at a certain point that growth is so complete that we are essentially someone else. Furthermore, this feat can be accomplished multiple times in the course of one’s life. 

I find this observation about our capacity for growth and change all the more interesting in light of this fact: William Bell also wrote the iconic Albert King hit, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Maybe you’ve heard it: “Born under a bad sign. Been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

712XQGdJsrL._SL1428_Here’s that album cover, decorated with a variety of symbols representing chance, fate, and bad luck. Snake Eyes. A Black Cat. Friday the Thirteenth. Poison.

The two songs, penned more than fifty years apart by the same writer, offer two very different views of the human condition, don’t they? One celebrates our capacity to take charge of our destiny; the other bemoans our lot as hapless victims of circumstance. That divergence is memorable, and worth exploring. Let’s do so by connecting these two songs to a third, one which I hope is becoming familiar to you:

Min hametzar karati yah, anani bamerchav yah….

Continue reading

A Heart of Many Rooms

Min hameitzar karati Yah – Anani Bamerchav Yah.
I called to Yah in dire straits; Yah answered me from a spacious place.

It’s hard to imagine more dire straits than those in which Abraham and Isaac found themselves in that moment before the angel intervened. Isaac bound on the altar, Abraham with the knife in hand, the task before him crystal-clear. “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him as an offering.” Isaac, as our tradition has it, was a willing sacrifice, his single-minded commitment to the cause of obedience to God’s command a perfect match for his father’s. The fourteenth-century teacher Bachya ben Asher is representative: “At first, Isaac didn’t know that he was to be the sacrifice. But…we learn he was at peace with the matter. The two walked on together, with the same intent. One to slaughter, and the other to be slaughtered.”

*    *    *

This is a d’var torah about finding a shared purpose and walking together, even down difficult paths. It’s about friendship, and it’s about conflict. But the good kind of conflict. Yes, there’s a good kind of conflict. Let’s start there. Continue reading

From Narrow Places to Wide-open Spaces

מִן הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ:

“I called on Yah in my distress;
Yah answered me with largesse.”

I love that verse; I love that melody. Thanks for singing it with me.

I love the singable translation, too. But I want to offer a few other possibilities, by way of helping us all come to a shared understanding of what the original Hebrew is trying to say. One contemporary translator, Pamela Greenberg, renders it this way: ”From a place of constriction, I called to you, and you answered with an expanse of heavenly presence.” Martin S. Cohen has, “From dire straits I called out to Yah, who answered me with the generosity of Yah.” I think my favorite might be that of Norman Fischer, whose Zen-inspired translation reads, “In my despair I called on you/And you answered me like the sky.” And of course, there’s the rendering from the passage we shared earlier in our service, Victor Frankl’s memorable recollection of that springtime day in 1945: Continue reading

An Open Letter to the Triangle Jewish Community

So sad to have to write a letter like this, and praying that our people can heal their divisions…

We, the undersigned rabbis serving in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, condemn the current campaign to vilify our colleagues, Rabbis Eric and Jennifer Solomon. We know them both to be true ohavei yisra’el (“lovers of Israel”). We deplore the tactics being deployed against them, which have no place in our communal discourse. We call upon the small group of people waging this campaign to cease their efforts immediately, and to apologize unequivocally.

This we know to be true: Eric and Jenny are deeply connected to the Jewish State, visiting frequently and instilling a love for our Land and People in their congregants and their own children. Eric is a graduate of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinical Leadership Initiative and Jenny is a Wexner Fellow; this places them solidly within the mainstream of American Jewish leadership. We also know them to be deeply committed to their vision for the State of Israel: a state where equality and pluralism are the norm, where justice is abundant, and where peace flourishes. They, like many American Jews and many Israelis, advocate for two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors. And they, like many American Jews and many Israelis, deplore the continued military occupation as inconsonant with Jewish and Zionist values. Continue reading

Base fears or better angels: Levi Yitzchak on leadership (Chukat 5776)

It was a scary time in the life of the young nation. Political infighting was rampant. A demagogue posing as a populist rose up and attempted to grab power. Though sustained and sated like no nation before, the people still felt insecure. A faction lived on appeals to nostalgia…though the “good ole’ days” were anything but. A woefully understaffed and overworked judiciary was utterly incapable of dispensing justice. Foreign policy? Forget about it. Enemies were on the horizon, and the tasks that lay before this nation seemed to them to be far beyond their capacity. They felt small. They were afraid. Yes, it was a scary time..for Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading

From Discernment to Action

 

 In 2013-14, I had the privilege of writing a year’s worth of Torah commentaries through the lens of Jewish Mindfulness for the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. Every once in while, I’ve found that one of those commentaries seems to really speak to the moment. Below is my essay on Korach from 2014; at the end of an awful week, filled with so much heat and very little light…

Don’t just do something, sit there!

Sylvia Boorstein

I have a friend and mentor whose mantra for tough situations is this: “In the presence of strong emotions, do nothing.” As I understand it, my friend is not advocating for a fear-based paralysis, but for a clear-eyed, mindful response of the sort which usually comes only after other responses have been considered and (wisely) set aside.

His advice reminds me of the clever and wise title of our teacher Sylvia Boorstein’s book about mindfulness retreats, cited above. Through our practice, we hope to “awake…to the happiness of the uncomplicated moment,” as Sylvia has it (p. 3). “And yet habits and challenges lead us to suffer, and then to act out of our suffering in ways that bring more suffering… We complicate moments. Hardly anything happens without the mind spinning it up into an elaborate production.” Continue reading

The Book and the Sword

June 13, 2016, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Remarks at a vigil in memory of the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre.

Sunday morning’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub took place during both Pride Month and Ramadan, timing significant for both the LGBTQ victims of the crime and the nominally Muslim perpetrator. For gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and the queer community, the timing is especially painful. The same can be said for the vast majority of American Muslims who are being unjustly tagged as complicit in the crime, or sympathetic to its goals.

Sunday also happened to be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a day which my Tradition marks as the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah. It is the day on which God proclaimed the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, sending the Word down from heaven into the world. It is a day on which Jews typically greet each other with the words chag sameach, “may your holiday be joyful.” This year, it was anything but. Continue reading

Tamid. Tamid. Tamid.

Caring Community Shabbat, May 20, 2016.

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” So wrote Paul Kalanithi, a young father, a physician, and the victim of an aggressive form of lung cancer. Kalanithi’s journey is chronicled in a powerful book, When Breath Becomes Air, published posthumously earlier this year. Face to face with his own mortality, he recognized that, while some tasks can never be fully accomplished, the striving never ceases. Rabbi Tarfon said it well, in the pages of Pirkei Avot: “You are not required to finish the job; neither are you free to desist from it.” Continue reading