This sermon was delivered on Erev Rosh Hashanah, October 2, 2016, at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA. To get the full effect, including music and visuals during the sermon, please check out the video.
You know those moments when someone comes into your life and gives you a message, right at the moment you needed it? I had one of those moments at a concert.
The opening act was this group, “Switchfoot.” And during one of the songs, the lead singer jumped down off the stage, and started singing the refrain of the song while he high-fived everyone in the crowd. I was so mesmerized, so caught up by the showmanship, all I heard in the moment was the melody, almost like a niggun:
Lai lai lai lai…
When I went home, I found the song online. This time, without the distractions of the concert venue, I really listened to the lyrics.
Yesterday is a wrinkle on your forehead
Yesterday is a promise that you've broken
Don't close your eyes, don't close your eyes
This is your life and today is all you've got now
Yeah, and today is all you'll ever have
Don't close your eyes
Don't close your eyes
This is your life, are you who you want to be?
This is your life, are you who you want to be?
This is your life, is it everything you dreamed that it would be?
When the world was younger and you had everything to lose
What a powerful message. I kept thinking about that question: This is my life - am I who I want to be? Then I realized the date. The concert had been on S’lichot, the service held on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah which marks the beginning of the period of reflection leading into the High Holidays. I felt like our ancestor Jacob, waking from his sleep and stating aloud God was in this place, and I did not know it. At any other time of year, this would have been a nice reminder to myself to reflect. But something pulled me to really hear this message, a message which would prepare me for the High Holidays.
If Rosh Hashanah has one theme, it is that we reflect — on our lives, on our actions, on our relationships — and we begin to engage in teshuvah: acts of repentance, atonement, and healing. Whether we are reading a prayer, singing together, or hearing the voice of the shofar, we are asked this question: This is your life — are you who you want to be?
This band intervened in my life at a moment that made me discover a new and deeper connection to my soul. I realized that the members of Switchfoot were angels to me. As we begin these High Holidays, I encourage you to reflect on the angels in your life, those who have made a substantial impact on who you are, even if they were only in your life a short time. And as we enter the year 5777, I ask you: be the angel you wish to see in the world.
We do not really talk about angels much in Judaism. My guess is that when I say the word, “angel” you think of white-skinned, blonde, white-robbed people with a little halo above their head, who sit on fluffy white clouds while they spread whipped cream cheese on their bagels. Or perhaps in this City of Angels you have seen the sculptures from the Community of Angels Sculpture project. Or perhaps, you think of Tony Kushner’s, Angels in America.
In Judaism, an angel is a type of being that is somewhere between human and divine. Angels are messengers of God who intervene in human activities, guiding them towards the best course of action. The word most commonly used to refer to angels in Biblical and rabbinic texts is “Mal’ach,” which means “messenger.” (EJ, 150) But angels are not just superhuman agents. Sometimes they are human agents called “b’nei Elohim, divine beings.” or “kedoshim, holy beings;” or “often the angel is called simply, ‘a person.’” (EJ, 150) Angels are not specific to gender. Some angels are male, as in the three men who came to Abraham to announce he and Sarah would have a child, and some are female, as in the book of Zechariah when the prophet looks up and sees two women “soaring with the wind in their wings.” (Gen. 18:2; Zech. 5:9)
While the Reform and Conservative Movements have taken out most references to angels in our liturgy, we still acknowledge them when we bow slightly to the left and right during the Kedushah and when we welcome the ministering angels of Shabbat with Shalom Aleichem.
Angels also play a substantial role in our High Holiday rituals. Our Torahs and our spiritual leaders are clad in white like the angels described in the Book of Daniel (12:7), “Then I heard the man, the angel, dressed in linen.” We act like angels, most notably when we say the second line of the Sh’ma — “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed - Blessed is God’s glorious majesty forever and ever” — three times in a full voice at the end of Yom Kippur. On the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, Cantor Nancy Cohen will chant the Akedah, and we will hear an angel intervene as Abraham is about to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. And on the High Holidays, we reflect on our humanity and ask ourselves: “What angels have I brought into the world?” (inspired by Rabbi Richard Levy)
In Judaism, Angels are an expression of God’s presence in the world. And if we, as humans, are created in God’s image, b’tzelem Elohim, than surely we, too, are expressions of God’s presence in the world. And surely we, too, as a community, are embodying the image in Psalms, standing together as an “assembly of holy beings,” and dwelling in “the company of the divine beings.” (Ps. 29:7) And, surely, each one of us has the capability of becoming equal to angels, resembling them, doing holy work, and being the angels we wish to see in the world.
The angels in our lives may not have been immediately recognized at the time. At that concert, Switchfoot delivered a message to me, but I was not yet able to recognize them as angels. When you consider the angels in your life, did you know they were an angel at the time? Maybe your angel was someone encouraging you to reach your full potential. Maybe your angel was someone who did an unexpectedly kind thing. Maybe your angel was someone who reached out a comforting hand at a time when you weren’t ready to admit you needed some help.
Of course, sometimes we do not act so angelically. We gossip, we act cynically, we hold grudges — because, in short, we are human. Indeed, what makes us human is the recognition that we sometimes miss the mark. While we strive to be the best version of ourselves, to act with kindness and compassion, when we fail ourselves and our friends and family, we can acknowledge our humanity, reflect, and bring about new, better action.
Rosh Hashanah and the High Holiday season encourage us to consider angelic values, to reflect on the year that was, and imagine what the next year could be. On Rosh Hashanah, we have the chance to reevaluate ourselves and our relationships. From whom do I need to ask forgiveness? Have I been who I want to be? Have I been the angel I wish to see in the world? This is your life. This is your year. Maybe this year you will be an angel of compassion. Maybe this year you will be an angel of forgiveness. Maybe this year you will be an angel of peace.
In the four years I have had the honor of being a part of this Kol Ami community, I have come to know the many angels in this sacred space. All of us here, as individuals, come together to make a community of angels. I have heard your voice of strength. I have noticed so many of you rally to each other’s sides. I have seen each of you embody the values of angels, bringing goodness into the world through SOVA and trips to Guatamala, showing up for each other’s performances and showcases, making house calls when members are sick, dancing and laughing at our Purim shpiels and Chanukkah festivals, and celebrating when marriage equality became a reality.
And I have seen the angels of compassion in this community, the angels who recognize that we all have moments of hurt, of struggle, of grief. In those moments of grief, we often feel resigned, withdrawn, helpless, in unimaginable pain. Each of us has moments, even in the last year, where the last thing we want to do is to be an angel. Instead, we just wish an angel would come and take away the pain — whether it was Orlando, a paralyzing diagnosis, or just trying to find our way in a constantly changing world.
Rather than waiting for an angel to come take care of us, we can be the angels we wish to see in the world. You can be an angel of compassion. You can support your loved ones by being a healing presence, really hearing them, helping them navigate their journey. The relationships of this community enable each of you to be an angel of compassion. While it is also true that the world has changed for the better because of the efforts of this community, I am guessing that each one of you has also changed for the better because of the angels of compassion who sit around you.
Think of all of the angels of this engaged community, interwoven with each other. We are transforming the world using Jewish values. We have created and are creating Jews for life. These are the pillars of our congregation.
As we enter the year 5777, I encourage you to reflect on the angel you wish to see in the world. Do you wish to see an angel of compassion in the world? Do you wish to see an angel of community? Do you wish to see an angel of social justice? Or how might you be an angel of compassion, community, social justice? What teshuvah does each of us need to do to turn ourselves around?
Each of us has the ability to make the world a little better. Maybe a lot better. And this is a community of angels that does not wait for someone else to make it better for us. And we will continue to build community one step, one moment, at a time, by being the angels we wish to see in the world.
This year, when you hear the words of Shalom Aleichem, our song about the ministering angels of Shabbat, I encourage you to hear those words and know that they apply to you, because when we sing them, we are not just addressing our spiritual angels, we are singing to each other: “Peace be to you, O ministering angels, messengers of the Most High; Enter in peace; Bless me with peace; Depart in peace.” (Mishkan T’filah translation) Enter the year in peace and gladness. Bless each other with kindness. And go forth, creating a more just world. May you have a year of peace, may you enter this year in peace, may you be blessed and bless others with peace. And in this year, and always, depart this holy space in peace, to be a force of goodness, an angel of compassion, an angel of community, an angel of peace, a messenger on high.
Shalom aleichem malachei hashareit, malachei Elyon.
Mimelech mal'chei ham'lachim, hakadosh baruch hu.
There must have been a moment
When you met somebody new
And you've never been the same since you met
And in the shadow of that meeting
A new awareness grew
That you've been given something holy
That you never thought you'd get
Our parents, our teachers, our lovers and our kids
The friends upon whose shoulders we cry
Every soul we chance upon
And every floor we dance upon
All can be a messenger on high.
Shalom aleichem malachei hashareit, malachei Elyon.
Mimelech mal'chei ham'lachim, hakadosh baruch hu.
Shalom aleichem malachei hashareit, malachei Elyon.
Mimelech mal'chei ham'lachim, hakadosh baruch hu.
The following is my fifth year sermon at HUC-JIR, delivered on September 22, 2016.
“Oh my God, it’s really happening.” That is the sound I made as Rosie O’Donnell opened up the 1997 Tony awards with a performance from the musical, “Rent.” Here is what I knew at the time about Rent: 1) It had killer music that spoke to my teenage angst; 2) my other musical-inclined friends were raving about it; 3) the show was getting a lot of press. Remember, this was 1997, so I had to wait until Chanukkah when I would get the CD as a gift before I could really hear the whole score and understand why the show was making such an impact. And when I did, I realized three fundamental truths at the exact same time: 1) the characters in the show represented real people who were deserving of honor; 2) I heard the story Jonathan Larson presented in Rent, but I knew there were other stories that needed to be heard; 3) I needed to do something to alter our society and support those in the LGBTQ community, those with AIDS, and every other group who has been disenfranchised.
Today, I am a 30 year old, Jewish, white, cisgender, heterosexual male who cares deeply about promoting equality, and especially equal opportunity, in our world. There are elements of my identities — namely being a white, straight, cisgender male — that I did not choose, yet have given me a leg up in the world. While I may face anti-Semitism for one aspect of my identity, I am not under the same societal pressures and do not face the same challenges as those who are of color, women, or LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer). That also does not scratch the surface of the privileges I have, just for having been brought up in an upper-middle class American environment. Yet, it is my Jewish values that implore me to use my unearned status, privilege, and power to support others who may be disenfranchised in the same way for reasons they did not choose nor control. I am an Ally - someone who believes that by working with those in a disadvantaged group, together, we can create a better world.
And I strive to, specifically, be a gender Ally. To me, this means that I am aware of the gender inequality in the world — that men have greater economic, societal, and cultural advantages than women — and the discrimination the LGBTQ community faces. Yet, there is no articulated ethics for the gender Ally. What I have done is acted, been corrected and told to reevaluate, listened, reflected, and reengaged with new action. Admittedly, as a believer in Deweyan style education, this process has worked so far for me. But for those who yearn for a framework, a set of principles, upon which Allies can operate effectively, the resources are bleak. When I Googled “Ally gender ethics” in April, the first four hits were: 1) a Facebook post about “Ally Week” at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; 2) a page about gender diversity at Curtin University in Australia; 3) a tweet from the UK organization, “Research in Gender and Ethics;” and curiously, 4) the Code of Conduct and Ethics for Ally Bank. If you want a formal guide for how to be an effective gender Ally, you apparently also will need to know how to be an effective researcher.
Finding no guide, I created and offer my own preliminary Three Principles for the Ally. My hope is that these principles will provide a framework in which Allies will be able to support and advocate for the communities with whom they ally. The three principles are simple on their face, yet complex in their understanding: 1) Honor the Human; 2) Hear Their Story; 3) Act.
Principle 1) Honor The Human
As God’s creations, all people deserve honor. Pirkei Avot constructs this concept with the term, k’vod habriot, with Ben Zoma’s statement, “Who is honored? Those who honor all people.” Rabbi Reuven Hammer notes that this does not apply to only those who have special privilege in the world but to all human beings.
K’vod habriot is exceedingly important and a necessary starting point when examining the role of the gender Ally. Rabbi Moshe Zemer gives an appropriate frame for the Ally, insisting on maintaining this value: “We are considering very sensitive matters. [These matters] relate to persons who have suffered from discrimination and persecution. They are human beings created in the image of God… We must, therefore, deal with these subjects in a sensitive way.” The Ally is likely motivated by this value, and should, accordingly, proceed with the same compassion, care, and honor that brought the Ally to the table.
Honoring the human also means to not “put a stumbling block before the blind.” The principle of “lifnei iver, before the blind” is meant to prohibit someone from taking advantage of an Other who has some sort of disadvantage. The Jewish tradition raises our responsibilities toward others to quite a high level: we are not allowed to do things that would cause someone else to sin, that would cause someone else to do something wrong.” For the gender Ally, this may mean an exploration of his or her own blindspots when it comes to gender equality, or even the mere realization that the culture or structure of a place encourages the perpetual marginalization of a particular gender identity. It is incumbent upon the gender Ally to understand that we, as humans created in God’s image, should also love and accept the Other as they are. To Honor the Human is to give k’vod habriot, not oppress the Other, and prevent ourselves and others from harming the Other.
Principle 2) Hear Their Story
Everyone has a story. It is their story. The job of the Ally is to hear the Other’s story and understand it.
One way of approaching this openness to the Other’s story is through understanding the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, the Other is any other person, and their Face is that which shows you the Other’s vulnerability. When one is able to see the Other’s story from their Face, one is brutally confronted with the Other’s truth. The story being presented by the Other is deeper than their words can say because it is a crucial element of their identity, of who they are. When Allies become Allies, it is largely because they recognize their ethical responsibility to the Other, especially when they encounter the story and Face of the Other.
It should be noted, too, that the story of the Other must be heard and retold properly. One example of the modification of the story is from my experience with Women of the Wall. My understanding was that this was a group promoting egalitarianism at the Kotel, a value I believe in deeply. The first time I went, I was excited to be there, be supportive, and show my support to this community. Yet, I was taken aback when, as we were about to read Torah at Robinson’s Arch, the service leader addressed the men saying, “You are welcome to be present, but you may not participate.” This, to me, went against the very narrative that I had been presented. As I did more research, I learned what had happened: members of the organization and some Allies changed the narrative to emphasize the creation of an egalitarian prayer space, rather than supporting those who wanted to pray aloud on the women’s side. A nuanced difference, to be sure, but one that came along with substantial consequences and emotional attachments.
Ultimately, the role of the Ally is to hear the Other’s story, not hear the story the Ally wishes they heard or even hear the story that could garner the most support. The story of the Other must be kept sacred and intact. Even slight, nuanced changes can delegitimize the work attempting to be done. This is not to say that an Ally cannot disagree with the Other’s narrative. Indeed, many Jewish Allies for racial justice were recently caught in a bind when the Black Lives Matter platform included offensive, anti-Semetic language from Boycott, Divest, Sanctions propaganda. Yet, however painful, the Other’s story must be heard and understood. An Ally who does not retain their integrity by sincerely hearing the story of the Other is not truly an Ally.
Principle 3) Act
Nearly every cultural tradition has some form of the Golden Rule. In Judaism, we know it from the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself.” The issue with the Golden Rule, though, is that it assumes that the way you wish to be treated is the same way that every person wants to be treated. Indeed, if a Catholic chaplain visits me in the hospital, I do not wish to be granted sacrament. Alternatively, the Platinum Rule teaches that one should “treat others in the way that they would like to be treated.” The Platinum Rule implores curiosity, respect, and empathy. Applied to the work of Allies, the Platinum Rule might read, “Advocate with and for others in a way that they would like to be supported.”
An Ally is someone who sees an injustice in the world and uses their power to correct it, even if that injustice does not disadvantage them directly. Often, but not always, an Ally may be a member of a majority group that holds power over another group. While history has shown time and again that those with power will do whatever they can to retain that power, the Ally operates with a different set of motivations. With an awareness of the power imbalance, an Ally’s actions are motivated by honoring the affected Other, hearing the Other’s story, and working to elevate the Other’s status, despite the fact that it may diminish their own power. Allies recognize the power of their position and then do what they can to use it, to in a sense, give it over to the Other.
For the Allies among us, there is even greater motivation to support those within the community because of the value of K’lal Yisrael - a responsibility to the Covenant Community. Power and access imbalance and discrimination, whether focused on Male-Female or LGBTQ or other issues, affects everyone in the community. The rabbis teach, “kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh - all of Israel is responsible for one another.” Issues of gender discrimination and power imbalance directly affect the Jewish community, and Jewish gender Allies use their power to uphold K’lal Yisrael.
While the principles of being an Ally remain constant, each specific Ally has different tasks. For the Male-Female Ally, their primary focus is bridging the gap of access and opportunity between men and women. This does not mean that there cannot be gendered experiences for men and women, but it does mean that everyone should have equal access and opportunity to, for example, work as Jewish communal leaders and receive equal pay. For the LGBTQ Ally, the task of the Ally is to create a culture that acts towards championing LGBTQ individuals with an embracing environment.
When we leave these halls, each of us will encounter situations which call on us to be Allies. Each of us, no matter our identity, can be a champion, an Ally, for a group that may be considered “Other.” Perhaps a part of your educational leadership will be to create a school which is open and welcoming to those with differentiated abilities. Perhaps your organization will be a safe space for LGBTQ Jews. Perhaps your synagogue will partner with Black Lives Matter. Each community is different, to be sure, but while the actions taken within each community will differ, we all seek to achieve the same ends.
It would be easy to end with a pithy statement like, “an Ally’s work is never done,” but as has been discussed, that would mean co-opting the story and idiom, “a woman’s work is never done.” Instead, I leave the decision for the end of the Ally’s work to the Other. Indeed, an Ally’s work is only done when they are no longer needed, and only an Other can make that determination. My hope is that these principles — 1) Honor the Human; 2) Hear Their Story; 3) Act — provide a starting point for the creation of a formal ethics for the Ally. Indeed, even in the creation of these principles, I have needed response, reflection, and correction. And I look forward to more during sermon discussion.
But when I think back to the words sung on that Tony stage, I hear them speaking to each of us: “What binds the fabric together when the raging, shifting winds of change keep ripping away?” It’s all of us, the marginalized and Allies, working together. As we enter the High Holidays, this season of reflection, this season of love, may this be a year of being Allies. May you be honored. May you be heard. And may we all act to create a more just world.
The following was posted on The Forward.
It all started with a question: Is there one song that all Israelis sing? I expected the answer to be simple. What I discovered was a rich, passionate, nuanced conversation about the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah.
A few years ago, The Forward attempted to start a conversation
around the words of Hatikvah. With Neshama Carlebach
singing, the lyrics evoked an Israeli nationalism that focused less on the specific Jewish experience and more on the diversity within Israel. I had always kept that piece in mind to possibly use in a lesson plan or a starting point in a dialogue on Israel. As part of my studies as a rabbinic educator at HUC-JIR, I completed a masters concentration in Israel education through the iCenter for Israel Education. Part of that fellowship involved creating some sort of contribution to the field of Israel education, as well as some money to go to Israel. Some people used that money to do ulpan, etc., but I chose to combine the project and the trip. I remembered Neshama’s video and went to Israel to interview Israelis and hear directly from them how they felt about Hatikvah, these word changes, and whether changing the anthem was even possible.Through an honest and thoughtful inspection of people’s perceptions and connections to Israel’s National Athem, Hatikvah reveals a delicately nuanced story of a Jewish people, living under different flags in different countries, striving to define their relationship with Israel. Simple questions lead to complex answers as the knotted threads of Jewish history, culture, family, politics and legacies are teased apart by Jews from all walks of life.
I focused on Hatikvah because it is really tangible for Diaspora Jews. While Diaspora Jews act on their deep relationship with Israel through discussion, lobbying efforts, and travel, it is rather rare that we grapple with a part of Israel that is also very tangible for us as well. For example, we can have a conversation about the virtues of settlement expansion, but if someone says, “Well, you don’t live there, you shouldn’t have a say,” the conversation is rendered virtually null. However, Hatikvah is something that holds emotional weight for both Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
Diaspora Jews often treat Hatikvah as liturgy. It is as if Moses came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and then the Israelites broke out into Hatikvah. Yet, there is a lively conversation happening in Israel about Hatikvah, its message, and what it means to the whole nation. I wanted to showcase Hatikvah because it’s something that Diaspora Jews can discuss and have a very personal touch-point. Diaspora Jews have a real connection to Hatikvah, but we just accept it. We don’t discuss it the way Israelis discuss it. And those voices are really important for us to hear.
I intentionally structured the film to model how to have a healthy, loving conversation about Israel, using the arts to showcase diverse narratives in an effort to deepen Jewish identities and Israel identities. Indeed, accepting the existence of nuance in an understanding of the people, culture, land, and state of Israel adds vibrancy to one’s relationship with Israel.
The first act focuses on Hatikvah, its music and history, and how the piece positively affects us emotionally. The second act goes into the challenges Hatikvah presents. There are no solutions yet, just an acknowledgement that there are some problems that Hatikvah forces us to grapple with. Then, we get a chance to see an alternative. Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out where we land on a particular issue until we are directly faced with a potential solution. The third act focuses on responses to Neshama’s alternative version, and whether we should change the anthem. This part also brings the conversation to the global Jewish community: Is Hatikvah a national anthem for the State of Israel, or for the Jewish community writ large? Now that we are at this moment of tension and unease, we pause, return to the “coda” and remind ourselves that Hatikvah is all about hope: hope for the future, hope for a better world, hope for a solution, even if we cannot agree on what that might look like today. And of course, the ever important last line of the film, “[Hatikvah is] one aspect of Israel.” This is how I hope conversations about Israel can be conducted: first start with love, then acknowledge some issues, dive into those issues with compassion and care, but end with a reminder of the love we shared at the beginning of the conversation.
The goal of this film is not to promote a particular agenda on how to, or not, change Hatikvah for Israelis or Diaspora Jews. Hatikvah
is meant to continue the conversation started by The Forward and Neshama Carlebach, adding authentic, Israeli voices to our own thinking.
D'var Torah Balak - “Mah Tovu - How Good it is to be Different”
July 22, 2016 - Congregation Kol Ami
Written and delivered by Jeremy Gimbel
This week, we witnessed a wealthy, racist, xenophobic, and paranoid leader use his power and influence to speak ill of a people, for the sole reason that they are different. Of course, I’m speaking of the character Balak in this week’s Torah portion.
Balak is a king of the neighboring Moabite community and he is fearful of the Jewish population. They’re just too big, he complains, they have too much influence...I think we have heard that before. Balak decides that the only way he can get a leg up on the Israelites is to hire a local prophet, Balaam, to stand on top of a mountain and curse the Israelites. Although Balak does his best to persuade Balaam to curse the Israelites, Balaam repeatedly tells Balak that he can only speak the words God puts in his mouth.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when Balaam goes to the high place and takes a look at the Israelite community, he does not curse the Israelites, but he blesses them, differences and all: “Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov mishkenotecha Yisrael - How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” This blessing was so powerful that the rabbis who formed our prayerbook ensured that the first prayer we say in a morning service begins with these words: “Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov mishkenotecha Yisrael - How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”
What is it about these tents and dwelling places that brought Balaam to offer these words? Rabbi Yochanan teaches in the Talmud that Balaam saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face each other, and that the Israelites thus respected each other's privacy. (Bava Batra 60a) In other words, the Israelites respected community cohesion and the right to be different, unique, individual.
Jews embrace differences. Take a second and think about what the one, central teaching of Judaism is. If I was to poll the room, I’m sure I would get different answers from nearly all of you. After all, as the saying goes, if you put two Jews in a room you will get three opinions. The rabbis struggled with this as well. For Rabbi Akiba, a -- not the, but a -- central teaching of the Torah was to love your neighbor as yourself. For Hillel, it was, “What is hateful to you do not do to another.” While these stalwarts of our tradition could not agree on a central tenet of Judaism, the fact that they cannot agree is actually one of the more beautiful things about Judaism: we embrace dialogue, we embrace nuance, we embrace the right to be different. Judaism does not say, “You must think this way;” Judaism says, “Oh, good, you’re thinking!”
Indeed, one of our Jewish values is “hakarat hatov - seeing the good.” Hakarat hatov is about keeping a positive outlook -- seeing the good in the world at all moments of life. In Pirkei Avot, the lessons of our ancestors, we are taught, “Who is the rich one? The one who is happy with his lot.” (Avot, 4:1) We embody hakarat hatov when we sit at our Passover Seders and we say, “dayeinu - it would have been enough.” We embody hakarat hatov when we sing Mah Tovu and say, “Yes, there may be issues with our house, but our dwelling is pretty wonderful” and we “raise our voices in thanksgiving.” (Ps. 26:7) And we embody hakarat hatov when we reflect on this week and look at all of the good that happened this week: the NBA is standing up for LGBT rights, thousands stood up proudly at the Jerusalem Pride parade, and we almost went a whole week without a mass-casualty terrorist event. I know these may seem like small victories in the grand scheme of things, but hakarat hatov, seeing the good, is like gratitude - you have to start small. In a world full of k’vetching, Jews are different because we tend to look towards the good.
Truthfully, it is the differences and distinctions that we observe that make us who we are. Jews, for example, observe time differently. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel so beautifully articulated in his book, The Sabbath, Jews on Shabbat create a “palace in time.” When we say kiddish, we are not imbuing special holiness to the wine or grape juice we drink. Rather, the wine is merely a conduit as we attribute holiness to the time of Shabbat, which we separate from the rest of the week. We do this with Shabbat and all of our holy times - we live out our differences with others by how we observe time.
So, perhaps Balaam’s blessing was a reminder to us all. Perhaps Balaam’s blessing was meant to hold a mirror up to us. Perhaps Balaam’s blessing was really something very Jewish: embodying the value of hakarat hatov, seeing the good, and celebrating what makes Jews different.
This Shabbat, may we be like Balaam, reminding us to celebrate our differences, to see the good, and create a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of communal wholeness, of goodness, of peace.
Mah tovu - how good it is to be different!
Delivered on July 15, 2016 at Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood, CA.
Something happened to me on the road the other day. Usually, when I’m driving east on Wilshire to get home, I go down to Crescent Heights and turn right. During this drive, I had the mapping app Waze on, and it told me that instead of turning on Crescent Heights, I should turn a few blocks earlier, at Stanley. I did what many of you have probably done: I ignored Waze and went about my drive, continuing down Wilshire because that was my habit, and I know better than a silly app. Of course, as soon as I passed Stanley, I saw why it wanted to route me differently: there was construction narrowing Wilshire from three lanes down to one.
Waze presented me with a different course. And I, in my pride and in my arrogance and in my ignorance, decided to keep on my own course, even though it proved to be the wrong one. While in my story, my choices only cost me a few minutes, the choices Moses made cost him much more.
When the Israelites first left Egypt, after singing and dancing with the joy of their redemption from bondage, they needed direction, guidance, support. They turned to Moses with anger and said, “You brought us up from Egypt just to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex. 17:3) Moses, who also needed direction, guidance, and support, turned to God and asked, “What am I supposed to do with these people? If they keep this up they’re going to kill me!” (Ex. 17:4) So God, giving direction, guidance, and support, told Moses to take his rod, the same one that he had just used to split the Nile, strike a specific rock at Horev, and water would come out of it and the people will would drink. (Ex. 17:5-6) So, just to recap: Israelites are upset because they don’t have water, Moses asks God what to do, God says to hit a rock, water comes out and the Israelite’s thirst is quenched.
Fast forward about 40 years, and to this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. For all we know, Moses was in the habit of striking the rock in order to get water: when people would get thirsty, he’d hit the rock, and water would come out. But then something changed - his sister, Miriam died. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of England, teaches, “[Moses] owed his sense of identity to her. Without Miriam, he could never have become the human face of God to the Israelites, law-giver, liberator and prophet. Losing her, he not only lost his sister. He lost the human foundation of his life.” (Sacks, “Healing and the Trauma of Loss - Chukat 5776”) After she is buried, the text tells us the people are again without water, and they resort to their familiar complaints, “You brought us up from Egypt just to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Num. 20:4-5)
Moses needed direction, guidance, and support, so he turns to God for help. God, giving direction, guidance, and support, told Moses to take his rod, the same one that he had used all those years ago to split the Nile, speak to a specific rock, and water would come out of it and the people will drink. (Num. 20:8) But Moses, in his pride and his arrogance and his pain decides to take the wrong path, ignoring the voices of his better judgement. He lets the rowdy crowds get to him, and like a showman entertaining the masses, shouts, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10) You can almost hear the cheers of approval from the crowd after that statement. But instead of speaking to the rock as God had told him, Moses strikes the rock…twice. Sure, water comes out, but God doles out a massive punishment to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Because you did not have-trust in me / to treat-me-as-holy before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore: / you (two) shall not bring this assembly into the land that I am giving them.” (Num. 20:12, Fox translation) Moses did not heed the advice of his guide. And it cost him entering the promised land.
There are many interpretations for why this burst of anger caused Moses such a harsh punishment. Classic commentators point to the act of striking the rock, which made it seem as if Moses was the miraculous one and not God. Other interpretations point to the word that Moses uses to speak to the rebel-rousers, “Morim.” “Morim” has the same letters as his sister’s name, “Miriyam,” so perhaps, Moses made a freudian slip, expressing anger in his grief of his sister’s very recent death. Rabbi Sacks writes: “Moses at the rock was not so much a prophet as a man who had just lost his sister. He was inconsolable and not in control. He was the greatest of the prophets. But he was also human, rarely more so than here.” (Sacks, “Healing and the Trauma of Loss - Chukat 5776”)
These past few weeks, our world has been rocked by tragedy after tragedy after tragedy: Nice just last night, Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Istanbul, Orlando…all in the last month. It is as if we cannot even catch our breath and mourn before there is another horror, another tragedy, another moment of grief. While we may differ on how these events affect us, we should heed the lessons of Senator Tim Scott: “Just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another does not mean that it does not exist.” We all have felt the pain, the anguish of another these past few weeks.
At moments like this, we often feel powerless, grief-stricken, like we have no choice. The path we thought we were going down has changed. Before, we had joy, we had song, we had Miriam. Now, we have sadness, and Miriam is gone. In dealing with the sadness, some of us choose to shut off the noise, getting away from the news, from Facebook and Twitter. Others, like me, have found it difficult to remain silent. We post, we comment, we discuss. At our best we move others to action, and at our worst, we, like Moses, resort to our old habits, we feed into the rebel rousing, and we strike our keyboards, rather than having healthy, necessary conversations towards progress, towards our promised land: a world filled with justice and peace.
While our responses to our grief are different, our desire to fix the world, l’taken et-haolam, is palpable. From the global level to the communal to the personal, what gives me hope is a recognition and a desire for civility, for compassion, for love. We know that there are many issues facing our world today — gun control, mental health, poverty, immigration, racial equality, anti-semitism, LGBTQ rights, Israel…and that does not include the personal and communal sins we acknowledge on the High Holidays.
Each of us, as humans created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, can embody our Higher Power, however we may see it, to bring more goodness into the world. And, like Moses, we can turn to God for guidance, and learn to be quiet enough to hear the response. Through our actions, through our speech, through our lives we can be healers, we can give direction, guidance, and support while speaking to each other, bringing forth waters of compassion and life.
This Shabbat, may we acknowledge the signs that tell us that we need to take a different path. May we have the humility to be open to the voices around us which strive to enhance our spirits and our world. And this Shabbat, dear God please, may we have peace and wholeness, a Shabbat shalom.
D’var Torah Ki Tisa - Kashrut and Our Jewish Identities
Feb. 26, 2016 - Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood, CA
One of my favorite restaurants in LA is just down the street: Hugo’s. I like it, Sarah likes it, and when we have guests from out of town, we always like to take them there. Hugo’s has something for everyone. Vegetarian? Lots of choices. Vegan? Done. Gluten free? They have you covered. And yet, they are not a vegetarian/vegan restaurant. You like meat? They have humanely raised and ethically treated meat. It’s one of the few restaurants where I have never had a bad meal.
And my favorite thing to get there? A bacon cheese burger: a tender, juicy patty topped with melted, gooey cheddar cheesy, crispity, crunchity bacon, and pickles, on a soft rustic bun, served with a side of freshly made chips. It’s delicious. And, to be honest, part of the joy of eating this burger is that it feels like I’m doing something a little wrong.
But, really, I’m not choosing anything outside of my Kosher observance. The bacon is turkey bacon, and the burger a turkey patty. Probably not the bacon cheese burger you thought I would describe.
But let’s unpack why the notion of a bacon cheese burger is so shocking. Of course! It’s not Kosher!
Let’s just set aside that the burger, humanely and ethically raised as it may be, was not Kosher meat, and let’s set aside that it was not cooked in a Kosher kitchen. There are two things that make that sandwich not Kosher:
For one, the bacon! Pork products are explicitly prohibited in Deuteronomy (14:8). That’s an easy one. Our people have a long history of not eating pork. Indeed, when archaeologists look for Israelite civilization, they often look for the absence of pork DNA in fossilized stool samples. In a more recent context, a friend of mine likes to say, “Shellfish isn’t Kosher, but pork is anti-Semitic.”
But let’s look at the second part of the sandwich that would, at first, appear to make a bacon cheese burger treif, not Kosher: it mixes meat and dairy. The source for this prohibition comes from three places in the Torah, once in Deuteronomy, and twice in Exodus. In all three places, we read, “lo t’vashel g’di bachaleiv imo - do not boil a kid (a baby goat) in its mother’s milk.”
“Lo t’vashel g’di bachaleiv imo - do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we read this phrase following the establishment of Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot, and presenting first fruits. Not surprisingly, the Rabbis had a lot to say about this verse, however, for the benefit of getting us out of here at a reasonable hour, I want to focus on the halachah, Jewish law, that comes out of this verse: meat and dairy may not be eaten together.
The Rabbis teach that boiling a kid in its mother’s milk was an idolater’s ritual and, therefore, we do not eat milk and meat together, since we are more civilized. Additionally, we are not to mix dishes, so a dish used for meat can only be used for meat, and a dairy dish can only be used for dairy foods. There is also a waiting period between when you can eat meat and dairy, just in case. They also teach that poultry and cheese are allowed on the same table, but are not to be eaten together.
This may sound like things are getting complex, and they are, but I want to share a story that really illustrates the relationship between Torah and later rabbinic interpretations when it comes to instituting these additional laws:
God is speaking to Moses. God says, “Moses! Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” Moses responds, “Oh! I get it! I can’t have a cheeseburger, because it would have meat and dairy in the same meal!”
God says again, “Moses! Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” Moses responds, “Oh! Now I get it. I have to have two sets of dishes, one for meat and one for dairy.”
God says once again, “Moses! Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” Moses responds, “Oh! Now I get it. I need to wait a certain amount of time between eating meat and dairy.”
God says, “Fine, have it your way.”
What I love about this story is that it really demonstrates that we can make the Torah ours. After the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, it became our job to study it, interpret it, and act on it. So, what do we do with this verse — “Lo t’vashel g’di bachaleiv imo - do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” — in today’s Reform Judaism? Do we follow the simple meaning of the Torah law? Or do we follow the later Rabbinic interpretations? Or do we just, as Burger King tells us, “have it our way?”
Rabbi Mark Washofsky teaches: “For Reform Jews, the decision to choose kashrut as a mode of religious life is not an ‘all or nothing’ option…Reform Jews may decide to observe all of these practices, some of them, or even none of them. They may decide to observe them at all times or only when dining at home.” (Jewish Living, p. )
What I love about Reform Judaism is that we are able to make informed choices. We learn our Torah, our history and its contexts. And then we choose. Each of us decides the role kashrut plays in our lives. For some of us, keeping Kosher provides a powerful, spiritual connection to the Jewish people and its history. For others, Kashrut is an outdated and irrelevant system. For me, keeping Kosher is a spiritual practice that gives me an intention when I eat. At the same time, I recognize the gray area within those rules, which is why I do not eat pork or shellfish, but I will mix poultry and cheese without guilt.
As Student Rabbi Shefrin taught us last week, “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim - these ideas and these ideas are words of the living God.” In this Jewish place, both the black, white, and gray of Kashrut are okay. All three have merit. All three are holy. And all three are equally powerful and meaningful.
Our task is to think about the decisions we make. We should not accept nor reject something at face value - we think, we analyze, we examine, and then we choose - we make principled, informed choices. Each decision we make will have complexities, but the decisions we make about food are just one example of how we can live out our values, and not just talk about them in theory.
I want to share one more story that illustrates what this might mean for us as Reform Jews: During our year in Israel, two of our classmates went on vacation in Tel Aviv during Passover. They went to a restaurant and ordered an appetizer: a shrimp cocktail. When the waiter came back with their dish, he asked, “I’m sorry, did you want dinner rolls or Matzah?” The shrimp was not a problem, but bread on Passover?! That was a choice made with intention and thought. That was not a choice made because it was just easier. That was an informed choice.
Indeed, when I think about Hugo’s, it strikes me as a brilliant example of how we can live as Reform Jews. At Hugo’s, whatever your dietary practice — be it vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, omnivore, Atkins, South Beach, whatever it is — you can find something on the menu that satisfies your hunger. At Kol Ami, whatever your Jewish practice — be it Jew-ish, a regular pray-er, Kosher, not, whatever it is — you can find something in this community that satisfies and deepens your soul.
This Shabbat, may we be mindful about all of our choices. May we recognize when the choices we make can be intentional and add spiritual depth to our lives. And may we all meet up at Hugo’s for a delicious meal.
The following is my fourth year sermon at HUC-JIR, delivered on January 14, 2015.
There is an episode of The West Wing where one of the characters, Josh, spends the entire episode in a therapy session, beginning to work through his post-traumatic stress disorder. At the end of the episode, his boss, Leo, tells him this story:
This guy's walking down the street when he falls into a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you, can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a friend walks by. 'Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here!' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out.'
Most of us are probably familiar with this story, and some of us may have even used it before in other sermons. But we often overlook a very important detail: Leo felt such a responsibility to Josh’s well-being that he waited for him long into the night.
How often, though, do we fall short on our responsibility to support our peers when they really need it most?
In this week's parasha, Bo, we read of the plague of darkness: "Moses stretched out his hand over the heavens, and there was gloomy darkness throughout all the land of Egypt for three days, - לֹא רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו - a man could not see his brother, and a man could not arise from his spot, for three days, but for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their settlements." (Ex. 10:21-23)
A Midrash explains that this darkness is the same darkness that existed before God created light, a "darkness of Hell." What Hell is this darkness? It is the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors. Indeed, the Talmud explains in Berachot that dawn is defined as “when one can recognize the face of a friend.” In other words, the rabbis are telling us that the plague of darkness can happen to any of us, when we cannot see the face of the other. But the way out of that darkness is looking at our friend and seeing their joy and their pain.
Perhaps we, too, are suffering from this plague. How often do we walk these halls in darkness, unable to see the person suffering right next to us? How often do we find ourselves in darkness, unable to see a light at the end of whatever vast tunnel lies before us? How often does the darkness of our lives, sometimes self-imposed, constrict us?
Each of us navigates our emotional challenges in different ways. Some of us are proactive and seek out therapy, a spiritual practice, or some other form of a support network. Yet, most of us, myself included, do little to actively pursue support when we need it most. And to be fair, there are no established systems in this community for us to seek out that support.
This sermon, though, is not about self-care. In the four years I have been on this campus, I have been lucky enough to hear sermons that discuss the importance of self-care, at the rate of at least once a year, and we will hear another in a week from our colleague, Abram Goodstein. Indeed, the justification for the importance of self-care is rather clear. But there is one thing we do not talk about: What is my responsibility to care for others in this community?
Last year, our colleague Dusty Klass conducted a survey of the three HUC stateside campuses to try to get a sense of the vibe of its culture in one word. For Cincinnati, the word was "academic." For New York, "busy." And Los Angeles? "Friendly." On the whole, I think we are living out that culture, but part of that friendliness must mean caring for each other. To me, creating a friendly atmosphere is not just about superficially acting friendly or even being BFFs with everyone on this campus. Living a culture of friendliness is about ensuring that our community member's emotional health is being cared for.
Currently, if a member of our community is in need of support, they can reach out to their academic advisor, their mentor, and possibly their classmates. There are some times when we have seen our community go beyond these structures, specifically when someone has a baby or there's a death in the community and we organize meal-trains and shiva visits. When I first got to this campus, I saw the community rally to Zach’s side after his father died.
But for the things for which there is no usual communal response, such as relationship crisis, the failing health of a family member, or just a higher than usual level of workload stress, we don't have the equivalent of a button on Facebook where we can check in and acknowledge, "I'm okay," or even, "I'm not okay.” But imagine if there were some way to ask for help in a safe, healthy way.
This communal responsibility of care is not just our imperative to maintain our campus's new slogan, "HUC-JIR Los Angeles: We're the friendly ones." We should be living out the value of chesed with each other. Our tradition has numerous examples that remind us of the imperative to support the well-being of the community.
In the Shulchan Aruch, there is a discussion of when one can go back to work after a funeral of a loved one. Technically, a person can go back to work after only three days of sitting Shiva if he or she feels obligated to do so for financial reasons. However, the text notes that if this situation exists, it should be seen as a failure of the community to not have done enough to support the bereaved.
We should also heed the philosophy of Emanuel Levinas. Levinasian thought says that when I am confronted with the Face of the Other, my principle ethical relation to that Other is the recognition that I am responsible to her. This is living out "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh - all of Israel is responsible for one another."
We do have moments where we make attempts to care for each other. When we go around the room and ask for names before Mi Shebeirach l'Cholim or Kaddish Yatom, we are engaging in caring behavior. But what kind of follow up do we do? How often do we acknowledge that someone else in the room, maybe even the person right next to you, said a name before one of those blessings and ask them about their loved one and how they are dealing with their situation?
Maybe we don’t follow up because it’s hard. Maybe we don’t connect with the person sitting next to us because we know it will be a long conversation and we really need to get to that next thing. Maybe we don’t pay attention to the names said aloud around us because of fear - fear that it will bring up something painful in ourselves, fear of not saying the right thing, fear of being vulnerable.
In the bigger picture of our campus culture, there are some structural things we can do. HaKesher, our student group, will be looking at this issue at its next meeting to brainstorm ideas for how we can be there to support each other emotionally, both in times of crisis and otherwise. I encourage you to be a part of that process, as that will be the best place to make an institutional and cultural shift. I also would like to propose three examples of how we can take on the communal responsibility of care:
One - I am acutely aware of the need to have a nursing room. It is important that our physical space reflect our values. But, when that space is not being used for nursing, I would like to suggest that it be used as an emotional safe-space, where peers can be present for each other, and even pastor to each other.
Two - One day, as I was walking to my car, I asked a classmate how he was. We had maybe a 30-second conversation, and we went our separate ways. That classmate came up to me later and expressed immense gratitude for asking such a simple question with true sincerity. We can do that for each other. The 15 second difference between being full present for someone may not make a difference in your arrival to your next thing, but it could completely radicalize how your peers are able to make it through the day.
Three - Our schedules are crazy. We have responsibilities of work that extend far beyond the classroom. But our time on this physical campus should not be monopolized by work. To that end, I would like to suggest the creation of small groups, no bigger than four or five people, that can meet periodically to help each other process emotional challenges as they come up. As Levinas taught, the first step in lifting the darkness is being confronted with the Face. Each group would have a peer facilitator, but the role of facilitator could change depending on who needs the support, even within the same meeting. Sometimes, all we need is to talk it out with someone who can help us talk it out. Not only will these groups support our individual and communal emotional health, it will also help us practice the sacred work that we will do when we leave these halls: provide pastoral care to our communities.
Admittedly, structural changes are the easiest to make. Changing our campus’ culture will be far more challenging. And I know that the responsibility of caring for our neighbors is difficult and complicated. I often fail to follow up with good friends who say a name during Mi Shebeirach l'Cholim, nonetheless the broader group of peers within my circle of concern. I tried and failed to start a post-CPE support group this fall. But these difficulties should not dissuade us from trying to lift the darkness by seeing each other's face.
The unfortunate reality is that our community will suffer plagues. Our hearts will be heavy and hardened. And there will be times that we are shrouded in darkness. But we cannot throw away this opportunity to be there in support of each other at difficult times by taking on this sacred responsibility for communal chased.
As we leave this sacred space today, take a look at the face of the person in front of you. Do you see their struggle? Can you see your neighbor's face? Can you help lift their darkness?
Delivered by Jeremy Gimbel on Dec. 1, 2015 (World AIDS Day) at Founders Metropolitan Community Church
I was introduced to AIDS on December 24th, 9 PM, Eastern Standard Time when I learned about the musical “RENT” by Jonathan Larson. For the first time, this unknown “thing” I had heard about on the news had a face and, more importantly, a story, an experience.
As I learned more and more about HIV and AIDS, I knew that I had to do everything in my power to care for those affected, both the patients and their families and communities. I knew that I had to do everything in my power to make sure that my peers were informed from reputable sources, that the stigma of those with HIV/AIDS would be mitigated, that my generation could face this head-on and work together to bring a little more light into this dark world.
I knew I needed to be an ally.
And I knew I was not alone. The Reform Movement of Judaism has committed to and lived out the values of our tradition: visiting the sick, saving lives, acts of loving kindness are not just buzz words, they are in our DNA. And they have remained our guiding principles in dealing with this epidemic. Judaism has always rejected the idea that AIDS is any sort of plague or punishment from God.
On the contrary, the Reform Movement has been vocal in advocating for those with AIDS from the early days, passing its first resolution dealing with HIV/AIDS in 1985 - and to all of you wondering, no, I was not yet alive when that happened. The Reform Movement was an ally that advocated for increased government interventions, fighting for public health efforts as well as advocating for those with AIDS and their families so they would not be discriminated when they sought housing, employment, health and community services, and public education. (URJ Resolution, 1985)
And you have an ally in Congregation Kol Ami. Kol Ami has done outreach and group support for people with HIV/AIDS since our founding, running the only Jewish support group in the nation. But I am here not only representing the community of Kol Ami, but also our spiritual leader, Rabbi Denise Eger. Rabbi Eger has been an AIDS activist since the mid-80s, editing the first curriculum on HIV/AIDS put out by the Reform Movement in 1987. As the president of the governing body of Reform rabbis, Rabbi Eger has advocated extensively for LGBT rights, and helped shepherd the resolution that just passed a few weeks ago by the leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism, that advocates for transgender rights, joining similar statements from the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
My new friends, today, I am reminded of the words from Ecclesiastes: “In the days of prosperity, be joyful; in the day of adversity, consider.” (Ecc. 7:14) And I am guided by Rabbi Tanchum ben Chiyya, who taught, “In the happy days of your neighbors, be with them in their happiness; if a day of tragedy befalls your neighbor, consider how you can show the neighbor loving kindness to deliver the neighbor from their tragedy.” (Pesikta Kahana 191b). We all have had tragic days. But through the power of working together, we have shown each other the loving kindness to deliver us all from the AIDS virus.
This is the power of working together.
The Festival of Lights, Chanukah, is approaching. This Sunday, we will light our Chanukah menorahs. And on that night, shortly after sundown, we will light two candles. Why two? We light one candle because it is the first night of Chanukah, and we will add one more light every night. But the other candle is just a helper candle, called the “shamash.” It’s only job is to light the other lights. The “shamash” is an ally to the other lights. It helps them burn brightly. When the sun sets early, the Chanukah menorah lights up our nights. It brings warmth and joy to our faces in our darkest times. And it would not be possible without allies.
This is the power of working together.
There is much work to be done. There is much pain to be healed.
But in this season of love, let us recommit ourselves to be each other’s allies.
Let us be each other’s “shamash,” each other’s helper.
Let us bring a little more light into this world.
This is the power of working together.
D'var Torah Vayetzei - “When a Cigar is a Holy Community”
Nov. 20, 2015 - Congregation Kol Ami
“Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” This statement usually attributed to Sigmund Freud (although, it’s likely not his statement - http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/08/12/just-a-cigar/) teaches us that something benign may actually be benign.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, we have the opposite lesson - sometimes a place in the middle of nowhere is much more than just a place in the middle of nowhere.
Fleeing his brother Esau, Jacob leaves Beer-sheva and sets out on a journey. One night, at an unidentified point in the journey, he encounters an unidentified place and sets up a simple camp using a rock as a pillow. And Jacob dreams. The story of his dream is best illustrated in Everett Fox’s translation: “Here, a ladder was set up on the earth, its top reaching the heavens, and here: messengers of God were going up and down on it. And here: Adonai was standing over against him. God said: ‘I am Adonai, the God of Avraham your father and the God of Yitzchak. The land on which you lie I give to you and to your seed. Your seed will be like the dust of the earth; you will burst forth, to the Sea, to the east, to the north, to the Negev. All the clans of the soil will find blessing through you and through your seed! Here, I am with you, I will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this soil; indeed, I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.’
“Ya’akov awoke from his sleep and said: ‘Why, Adonai is in this place, and I, I did not know it!’ He was awestruck and said: ‘How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than a house of God!’” (Gen. 28:12-17, Fox) Jacob then takes the stones that he had used that night, creates a monument to God in that unidentified, unknown place that had been insignificant, and names that place, “Beit El, House of God.” (Gen. 28:19)
Those stones were no longer just stones.
I want to draw our attention to two key Hebrew words in this story: “Hinei” and “Makom.” Literally, “hinei” means “here,” but more fittingly it is a word meant to draw our attention to something important. For example, when we sing “Hinei mah tov umanaim shevet achim gam yachad,” we often see a translation of “How good and how pleasant it is that brothers and sisters dwell together.” (Psalm 133:1, trans. Mishkan T’filah) That translation is not wrong, but there is one word that does not get translated: “hinei.” Beginning this line from Psalms with “hinei” is meant to focus us to the importance of what comes next. “Hinei” can be thought to mean, “Lo and behold,” or as a friend of Student Rabbi Shefrin taught us, “hinei” can mean, “Dude!”
The text of our story wants us to pay attention, not necessarily to the place itself, but to its significance. Our story of Jacob’s dream begins with three instances of “hinei,” and one more when God says, “v’hinei anochi imach - and hey, I am with you.” When Jacob lay down to sleep for the night, he had no idea this sacred encounter would happen. But the text is begging us to understand that this is a sacred moment that is happening in an anywhere kind of place.
Indeed, the other key-word in this story is “Makom,” which means “place.” It is used six times and — like “hinei” — is meant to make us pay attention that something special, something Divine is going to happen. “In post biblical Hebrew, ‘makom’ became a term for God, so that the setting for the ensuing dream seemed predestined.” (Plaut commentary) Robert Alter notes, “This is the tale of transformation of an anonymous place through vision into a ‘House of God.’”
The Talmud (Chullin 91b) gives us a story that this anonymous place is actually Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, the site of the binding of Isaac on the altar, and later, the Holy Temple. Although most commentators do not share this view, the Talmud is making the point that this place has spiritual significance for Jacob and, therefore, should have significance for us.
Maimonides, however, feels that places and objects are not holy, per se. Sometimes, a site is just a site. The holiness and enhanced spirituality happens when people use those sacred moments and sacred sites to improve themselves and their communities.
But Jacob does not see this site as a mountain, as Abraham did (Gen. 22). Nor does Jacob see this site as a field, as Isaac did (Gen. 27:3). Jacob sees this site as a house — “Beit El - a House of God.” Rabbi Laurence Groffman teaches that this is meant to “remind us that in addition to residing in the universality of the mountain and the field, we must keep our own house in order. We must take great care to nurture our own distinctive identities and tend to the needs of our people.”
We are more than a congregation. We are more than a collection of individuals who come together in a certain place in the middle of LaBrea on our journeys. We are a holy community - a kehilah kenosha.
We recognize that the messengers of God, these angels, started on the ground and then went up. We, too, can take our message of love and raise it up; carrying with us the messengers of God who fight for the rights of equality for all, so that not one more person is senselessly killed because of who they love or what gender they are. We, too, can take our message of peace and raise it up; carrying with us the messengers of God who fight for our security, so that not one more person is senselessly killed because they went to a concert in Paris or a hotel in Bali or vacationed in Egypt. We, too, can take our message of community and raise it up; carrying with us Jacob’s revelation that God is found in each other, in this place, when we open ourselves to that holiness.
We are Congregation Kol Ami, the voice of My people.
Can you hear it?
D’var Torah Bereshit - The Tohu Vavohu of Gun Violence
Congregation Kol Ami - West Hollywood, CA - Friday, October 9, 2015
Written by Jeremy Gimbel
In the beginning, there were swirling masses of chaos that were, tohu vavohu
, unformed and void. In the days of creation that followed, God created light and darkness, water and sky, land and vegetation, celestial bodies, animals, humanity, and Shabbat. In short, in the beginning there was chaos, and the story of creation brings about order.
Wouldn't it be great if that was the end, if that was the only thing we needed to learn from this story?
In fact, we are just at a beginning. B'reishit bara Elohim
, begins the Torah, "In the beginning God created" ... or so we think. The bet
at the beginning tells us "in," and "reishit" tells us "beginning," but what is unclear is what comes between "in" and "beginning." But the grammar tells us that we cannot think of b'reishit bara Elohim
as "in the
beginning." Instead, the vowels want us to read this as "in a
beginning," implying that there are lots of beginnings. And before you think that this is just my idea, this is actually an interpretation that has great Kabbalistic and rabbinic backing. B'reishit bara Elohim
, "In a beginning of God's acts of creation..."
Moses Maimonides reads the story of creation as a parable, understanding that we, as creatures created in the "image of God," are commanded to develop an ability to understand the world and how we, as Godly messengers, function in the world. Our job is to take the chaos of the world, the injustices of the world, the tohu vavohu
of the world, and bring about order through justice. B'reishit bara Elohim
, "In a beginning of doing divine work..."
As we begin to read the Torah again, and as we begin this new year, we are compelled to acknowledge that there is a narrative out there that says that our country was unformed and void, and the second amendment gave us order. There is a narrative out there that says that if the government does something about guns in this country, we will move from order to chaos.
That narrative is harmful, dangerous, and factually wrong.
According to the FBI’s recently released “Crime in the US, 2014” report (https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/resource-pages/downloads
), a report that includes all incidents of gun violence known to law enforcement (except for Florida and Alabama), nearly 1800 people were killed by a gun due to an argument not during the commission of a felony.
Not as a result of gang violence nor drug trafficking - just arguments that escalated. In fact, the number of gun homicides due to those two categories I mentioned, gang violence and drug trafficking, was HALF of the gun deaths due to an argument not during the commission of a felony.
And in the aftermath of the most recent high-profile shooting in Oregon, the NRA tweeted, "It'll take a lot more than one disturbed individual to intimidate or silence Americans who believe in the #2A!" (twitter.com/NRA
) One astute respondent asked, "How many more?"
There is a narrative out there that says that this is not a gun issue, but a mental health issue. Yes, mental health is an issue in this country. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 4 Americans are impacted by mental illness. As an aside, I encourage you to do your part to help by taking this three-word pledge: "I will listen."
But the narrative that tries to connect mental health and gun homicides is just factually inaccurate. According to an article in the Annals of Epidemiology, the large majority of mentally ill people are non-violent. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24861430
) And the vast majority of gun violence is committed by non-mentally ill people. The American Journal of Public Health reports that "fewer than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings [studied] were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness." (http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdfplus/10.2105/AJPH.2014.302242)
Mark Follman, reporting for Mother Jones, cites a member of an FBI program that is seeking to stop the proverbial next mass shooter. He argues that mass shootings are predictable and preventable, and not usually the result of psychosis. Quoting the agent, “When the next shooting happens, the question will again be asked, ‘What made him snap?’ But mass murder is not an impulsive crime. Virtually every one of these attacks, forensic investigations show, is a predatory crime, methodically planned and executed.” These people are sick, but they’re not sick.
There is also a narrative that we need more good guys with guns. Except that, according to a Politico analysis of school shootings, “no armed civilian has ever actually stopped a school shooting.” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/10/oregon-shooting-gun-laws-213222?o=1
All of these narratives are not just factually inaccurate, they go against our Jewish values and the Jewish tradition. Throughout time, Judaism has focused on the sanctity of human life. The Ten Commandments tell us, "You are not to murder." (Ex. 20:13, Fox) The Prophet Isaiah tells us to "beat [our] swords into plowshares, and [our] spears into pruning hooks." (Isaiah 2:4, JPS) The Rabbis tell us in Mishnah Sanhedrin that "the one who takes one life it is as though that person has destroyed the universe." (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
The Reform Movement has been at the forefront of leading the charge for combatting the curse of gun violence, passing resolutions as early as 1975 calling for legislation "that would limit and control the sale and use of firearms." (URJ 1975) The Central Conference of American Rabbis just this August reaffirmed their commitment to gun control by urging “the members of the congregations and communities [they] serve to demand that their Representatives and Senators enact effective gun violence prevention legislation.” (https://ccarnet.org/rabbis-speak/resolutions/2015/ccar-resolution-gun-violence/
) They also encouraged government bodies — such as the military and police forces, which account for 40% of the guns sold each year — to use their purchasing power to demand certain safety features from gun manufacturers. (http://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/2015/06/18/rabbi-minister-and-priest-host-gun-show
It is our time to flip the script and change the narrative. As we begin to reread the Torah, it is time for us to realize that we are at a
beginning. We are at a beginning where gun violence in this country is tohu vavohu
- chaotic and harmful. We are at a beginning where we can stand up and say: We will do whatever we can to bring order to this chaos.
“Does [it] make any sense that we should put rifles and guns in the hands of people who have long criminal records, or people who are insane, or people who are mentally incompetent, or people who are so young that they don’t know how to handle rifles and guns?” Do you know who said that? Bobby Kennedy in May, 1968, just a month before he was shot. How right he was.
The time has come for common sense gun regulations. This includes, but is by no means limited to preventing those convicted of domestic abuse from buying guns, closing the “gun show” loopholes, and repeal the law that helps gun manufacturers avoid legal consequences from the criminal use of their products.
And don’t even get me started about Australia, where after introducing common sense gun regulations in response to a mass shooting in 1996 and in concert with social and economic trends, there have been ZERO mass shootings. None. (McPhedran, Samara and Baker, Jeanine, Mass Shootings in Australia and New Zealand: A Descriptive Study of Incidence (2008). Justice Policy Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2011. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2122854
Why am I speaking about this? It’s not specifically because of Oregon, Charleston, Lafayette, or Virginia or any of the other mass shootings that have happened this year. It’s not specifically because of Sandy Hook or Columbine. It’s not specifically because in the first 274 days of 2015, there have been 294 mass shootings. (shootingtracker.com
and Washington Post) Not 294 dead from mass shootings, 294 incidents where there were 4 or more victims.
I'm speaking about this specifically because I could not even finish writing this sermon before another mass shooting senselessly took innocent lives. I’m speaking about this specifically because I could not even finish editing this sermon before another mass shooting senselessly took innocent lives. I’m speaking about this specifically because these shootings are not, as Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng called it today, “isolated” nor “unprecedented.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/10/09/one-dead-3-injured-in-shooting-at-northern-arizona-university/
And I’m speaking about this specifically because there's an emergency phone on the bimah. And I hope that at some point in my rabbinate, I will be able to leave it upstairs.
For now, though, it is time, at this beginning of doing God's work, for us to pick up our phones and contact our legislators. Yesterday, Senators Schumer and Stabenow introduced plans for gun control reforms that would close background check loopholes, expand the background check database, and tighten regulations on illegal gun purchases. In the scheme of things, it's not a lot; but it will make a difference.
We are living in a chaotic world. And complacently is not an option when it comes to gun violence in this country. B'reishit bara Elohim
- in this beginning of doing God’s work, "Let the old year and its curses come to an end. Let the new year and its blessings begin.” (Kitov, "The Book of our Heritage," Vol. 3, p. 332)
Mi shebeirach avoteinu v'imoteinu, God of our ancestors, let us recognize that we are at a beginning of doing Your work. May we see the light in the darkness. May we bring about order in the chaos of gun violence. May we inspire humanity to, in the words of Rabbi Menachem Creditor, "rebuild Your World by saving each other." (rabbicreditor.blogspot.com
) Yir’eh Elohim, ki tov
- God will see, and it will be good.