Monday, May 16, 2016

Fair Trade Shabbat - Parshat Kedoshim: Expanding Mitzvot in the Supply Chain

Kippah Crocheter Angelica Marta works 
with MayanHands, supporting herself and 
her family. Photo: Dina Tanners
Kedoshim: A Favorite Pick-and-Choose Parshah
May 14, 2016 - Betsy Teutsch

This shabbat is designated Fair Trade Shabbat, coinciding with World Fair Trade Day. Some of you know I am on the Fair Trade Judaica Advisory Board, so I was eager to take on linking today's Parshah, Kedoshim, with Fair Trade Principles. And of course I provided slave-free Equal Exchange Kosher Fair Trade Chocolate to amplify my teaching. [IF you're reading this rather than hearing it in person... go shopping!]

Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27) is about an elusive topic, holiness. We sense holiness, but it is hard to define. Social justice advocates love this parshah because of its justice-promoting chestnuts, but there are also opaque and baffling instructions, as well as some we moderns find offensive.

First, some easy ones:


  • Peah – Leave the corners of your field for the poor. There is no upward limit. You could harvest a chevron shape, where the corners are the same size as the field, making it 50/50
  • No gathering of fallen fruits, they are for the poor and the stranger
  • No defrauding
  • No withholding of wages.
  • You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old
  • No falsifying of weights
  • You shall not wrong a stranger that resides in your land
Some less obvious paths to holiness:

  • You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed (though it does not forbid companion-planting, where one pairs two different kinds of plants, a beneficial practice , a standard in permaculture and sustainable agriculture)
  • You shall not mix two kinds of cloth (shatnez)
  • You shall not destroy the sidegrowth of your beard
And then the ones that are 180 from where we are today: inappropriate prohibitions, such as the one against male-male unions. In our world they are not only legal, but a celebrated source of holiness for those in loving unions, in many Jewish communities.

The text does not define holiness; we are to be holy, set apart, for God.

I would submit that holiness is , l’havdil, like pornography. You know it when you see it. You feel it.

Clearly achieving this holiness requires a lot of every day, ordinary attention to behavior in the material world. It is woven into our interactions with others. If we were to make up a list of ways to achieve holiness as we live our daily lives, some of these Levitical principles would likely make our list; others would disappear.

Here we are 2500 years later in a complex globalized world of 7 billion people. We can’t leave the corners of our fields for the poor, since we mostly don’t raise our own food, and the world's poorest people, many of whom do raise our food, concentrate in the Global South.

The Fair Trade movement seeks to utilize our everyday market transactions to help the poor improve their lives, according them dignity and ensuring they can meet their basic needs. The opposite? Said Zach Teutsch, when I first described fair trade coffee a decade or so ago, must be unfair trade.

Initially the movement has been known for coffee production,  Fair Trade products include many others kinds of consumable food, flowers, clothing, housewares, crafts, and even Judaica like Fair Trade Judaica's Bar/Bat Mitzvah Collection, kippot and tallitot.

There are ten basic principles of Fair Trade. They expand the holiness in our daily consumption – creating more kedushah and allow us to help people help themselves out of extreme deprivation, Rambam's highest level of tsedakah. Here are a few examples:

Transparency throughout the supply chain. It is easy to take advantage of people who are unaware of the retail value of their products. Asymmetrical information is a form of exploitation, the opposite of fair.

No child labor. This is not prohibited by Torah, it was the pre-industrial norm. It is illegal, now, but not uncommon. Likewise no slave labor. Fair Trade certification is an extension of kashrut supervision, which applies to food.

Safe work conditions, setting forth goals which co-ops can work to attain. Cheap clothes et al are produced in factories that cut every possible corner. (Contrast that with leaving the corners open for the needy….)

FT guarantees equal rights regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, HIV status. This is a much higher standard than Torah or secular law.

Environmental standards are integrated into FT, unlike the conventional food supply chain where workers, the land and water and ultimate consumers are exposed to pesticides. This too is a higher standard, and missing from conventional kashrut supervision.

Q) How might we integrate Fair Trade standards, a sort of “consumption kashrut”, into our personal and household lives? Does having worker justice, environmental protection, and gender equity guarantees feel like holiness? Is this a spiritual practice, or just a form of consumption tax? Or tsedakah?

Q) How to we integrate fairly traded products into Dorshei Derekh and our shul?
Sometimes FairTrade is costly – it cuts out the middle-men so can be competitive, but products are usually higher quality, ergo costlier.

Q) How to we resolve conflicting Value Based Decision Making – local vs. buying a fair trade product from far away, or cost, or kashrut labeling? Organic, for example, does not equal Fair Trade. Or a FT product might not have kosher certification. My husband David loves his Starbucks French Roast. It's kosher, but not Fair Trade. 

PS - Elite Chocolate has no supervision of its supply chain. You can help a recent Ashira Abramowitz, a recent Bat Mitzvah girl in Israel, petition Elite to raise its standards, 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Purim's GJC Tsedakah Collective 2016 - Please Participate!

This Purim, GJC and Minyan Dorshei Derekh will once again run our Mishloah Manot tzedakah collective project, continuing a tradition of over a decade. It allows us all to fulfill two of the important mitzvot of Purim: mishloah manot (giving treats to our friends) and matanot la’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor).

Here’s how it works:
  • You donate to the project – suggested minimum, $18, no maximum!
  • Donations can be made via PayPal or by sending a check made out to “Germantown Jewish Centre, earmarked for the Purim Tsedakah Project, to the office
  • The bulk of the proceeds is donated as tzedakah to three local organizations providing direct support to the needy.
  • A small percentage of the proceeds will be used to provide aFair Trade Equal Exchange Chocolate bar + clementine  each household attending the Charry Megillah Reading and/or the Dorshei Derekh evening Purim celebration Wednesday night, March 23.
  • We are dispensing with the tradition of clementine cartons filled with goodies; families have been reluctant to take them. Rather than waste food, we are “minimizing the waste and maximizing the mitzvah“. By purchasing Fair Trade chocolate, the mitzvah of helping the poor support themselves is integrated into the ritual of mishloach manot!
1. We will once again be supporting a Weavers WaWWCP Websitey Community Program, the community garden at Stenton Family Manor, a homeless shelter in Germantown.  The grant  helps a farm educator teach residents how to raise food.  The produce raised is used directly in the kitchen to feed residents.
2. We will be contributing to refugee resettlement, via the
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS-PAhias-logo


3. We will also support The Center For Returning Citizens, whose head Jondhi Harrell spoImage result for center for returning citizenske at the Stefan Presser Social Justice Shabbat this past January.
The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC) assists returning citizens in the transition from incarceration to society by providing job training, housing assistance, counseling services, legal aid, and referrals. TCRC helps individuals, families and communities with the adverse impacts of incarceration.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Mass Incarceration: Injustice in America, a Jewish Response

Dorshei Derekh hosts an annual Shabbat focused on social justice in memory of Stefan Presser, a minyan member committed to social justice and proud head of the ACLU. Stefan passed away at age 52, from a brain tumor, in 2005. We have picked a topic each year to learn more about, spurring individual and collective action.

This year's event was very well-attended with both of our speakers providing both inspring as well as deeply distrubing presentations - there is a lot of work to be done. 

Below, Rabbi Malka Binah Klein has provided links for further information.

Kudos and thanks to our chair, Donald Joseph, and the committee - Rabbi Michele Greenfield, Rabbi Malka Binah Klein, David Mosenkis, and Betsy Teutsch.


Jondhi Harrell's organization is The Center for ReturningCitizens, Philadelphia  

Miriam Grossman is an intern at T'ruah: The Rabbinic Callfor Human Rights.  You can sign up for action alerts at  truah.org

To sign up at The Marshall Project to receive news reports about the criminal justice system

Learn about ways to get involved in the campaign to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania at DecarceratePA.into 

Learn about prisoner advocacy at Prison Society.

Abigail Weinberg taught a wonderful Linda Hirschorn chant, Circle Round for Freedom. Naomi Hirsch has supplied the lyrics and a YouTube.
Circle round for freedom,
Circle round for peace.
For all of us imprisoned,
Circle for release.
Circle for the planet,
Circle for each soul.
For the children of our children,
Keep the circle whole.

Click to hear Linda Hirschhorn singing her composition:







Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Rabbi Robert Tabak on Jonah: Endings to the Story

Minyan Dorshei Derekh, Germantown Jewish Centre, Philadelphia
Mincha Yom Kippur, 2015
Rabbi Robert Tabak

Jonah: Endings to the Story

This dvar Torah is dedicated to the memory of my father, Sol Tabak z”l who for many years read the Jonah story in English at his congregation, Adat Shalom, in San Diego.

Rabbi Gail Diamond, quoting Uriel Simon asks, if teshuvah (repentance) is at the center of the book of Jonah, where is it in first 2 chapters – the prophet fleeing , the boat, great fish, etc.?  The sailors are presented as good, moral people. Jonah is fleeing God and also declares his awe of God.  But no one is called on to repent.
However, teshuvah is at the center of the story, and at the center of Jonah’s anger in the last two chapters.
The Rabbis teach that teshuvah is one of seven things created prior to creation – (BT  Nedarim 39b/Pesachim 54b)
  שבעה דברים נבראו קודם שנברא העולם, ואלו הן תורה
 תשובה וגן עדן וגיהנם וכסא
הכבוד ובית המקדש ושמו של משיח.  
   - *תשובה - 
   "**בְּטֶרֶם הָרִים יֻלָּדוּ...  וַתֹּאמֶר 'שׁוּבוּ בְנֵי אָדָם!'*".
Seven things were created before the world, viz., The Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah….Repentance, for it is written, Before the mountains came into being [yuladu-were born], before you formed the earth and the world . . . You return humans to dust, you decreed “Return [shuvu] you mortals.” (Ps 90:2-3, “Tefila l’moshe ish ha-elohim”)

In this list of seven things – one of them is not like the others – only teshuvah is a quality, or potential quality, of human life, for all people.

At the end of chapter 4, why is Jonah angry? He says, I knew you were El rahum (A merciful God) , using the same language as Exodus 33-34 after the Golden Calf.
Again: Why did Jonah leave the city? (4:1-4) the text says, because he sees that God is forgiving . Jonah wants a God of absolute justice, of din (at least for gentiles).” Please take my life from me” (twice!)– God  asks (as Rabbi David Steinberg notes, seemingly with sarcasm) “Are you that deeply grieved”? and again after the plant dies.
Ruth Loew asked me a great question:  What happened to Jonah next?  The biblical story ends with the people of Nineveh changing and God telling Jonah about God’s compassion . We don’t hear anything of Jonah’s life after his mission to Nineveh.  Is there a capacity for Jonah to change as well?
Our interactions with others change us – something that I learned in many years working as a chaplain.
The rabbis taught in Leviticus Rabbah (34:8) It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua:  The poor person does more for the householder (who gives tzedakah) than the householder does for the poor person. (trans from Danny Siegel, Where Heaven and Earth Touch vol 1, no.53) Sometimes we think we are “helping” others, and we will be helped, or changed, more by that interaction than the other person will be.
Once when I was a chaplain, I met a minister and a rabbi who were both hospital patients on a transplant floor.  Both were from South Jersey, but they had hardly known each other – meeting only once or twice at clergy meetings.  The minister heard that the rabbi was getting sicker and sicker and needed a kidney donor.  She said to herself, maybe I can do this.  She was tested, they matched, and both were in the hospital for the transplant. (They also told their story to the newspapers, so it is not confidential).  I don’t know if my visits as a chaplain to each of them helped them or not.  But these visits affected me and made me see how deeply hesed (lovingkindness) can affect people who hardly knew one another.  We may all not be able to be organ donors, but we can show kindness even to those we do not know.
The story of Jonah as written ends with God admonishing Jonah, with teshuvah possible, even for the evil deeds (hamas –  violence or theft) of the city of Nineveh.  At the end of the book we just read this afternoon, the sukkah is gone. The plant is dead.  The king and people have changed.
And presumably Jonah makes the long journey back from Nineveh to the land of Israel.  What is in an imaginary Chapter 5?
I don’t want to give a single answer, but will share a few possibilities for Jonah, Chapter 5
1)      Jonah returns home, and is still resentful of the hesed (lovingkindness) of God, which overruled strict justice.  He goes around grumbling, and saying “Nineveh, its king and citizens were probably faking.  They didn’t mean it—they just wanted to save their necks.  The first chance they get they will cheat and will probably attack Israel, too.”
Jonah was a messenger who still did not believe in the message he had carried.

2)      Version 2.  Jonah returns home, deeply affected by his encounter with human transformation.  He is overwhelmed, even smitten, by hesed/lovingkindness.  The people of Nineveh, he realizes, did not repent because of his great oratory or skills (he spoke in a foreign accent) but because somehow the content reached their hearts.     On the long, hot road home, Jonah thinks about the dead plant he had been willing to die about, and realizes that all of God’s creatures – human and beast, Israel and gentiles, and even plants that die in a day are somehow connected to a wider reality.  Even the thief who steals his donkey and backpack one night is one of God’s beloved creatures.
3)      Version 3.  Jonah returns home.  He realizes that people can change, and that God can forgive. He also knows that not all the people of Israel, not all the people of Nineveh, not all the beasts are kind and loving.  He knows some are capable of great evil. But people are also capable of good, and more significantly, capable of transformation.  Jonah realizes that he is not the center of the story.  At most, he is a messenger.  Jonah has to confront his own anger that God is el rachum v’hanun  (a God merciful and forgiving), that God who somehow forgave the Golden Calf and the Ninevites might forgive him, and might forgive Israel, if they truly change.

I  want to conclude by sharing a midrash that connects three essential qualities (tzedakah, teshuvah, tefillah ) of the Days of Awe to one verse that we don’t often read, from Second Chronicles when King Solomon dedicates the First Temple in Jerusalem :  (Pesikta d’rav Kahana, BaYom HaShemini Atzeret 28:3).

Rabbi Yudan said in the name of Rabbi Elazar:
Three things-
prayer, Tzedakah, and turning-to-Menschlichkeit [Teshuvah]
eliminate [unfavorable heavenly] decrees. (shelosha hen she-matbilin et ha-gezerah).
and all three can be derived from a single verse:
“When My people, who bear My name,
humble themselves, pray,
seek out My face,
and turn from their evil ways,
I will hear in My heavens,
and will forgive their sins,
and heal their land.” (II Chronicles 7:14)
“pray” (va’yitpallelu)- this refers to prayer
“seek out My face”—this refers to Tzedakah
as it is written elsewhere “I through Tzedakah (tzedek) shall see your face.” (Psalm 17:15)
and “turn from their evil ways”—this is turning-to-Menschlichkeit [Teshuvah]
And what is the conclusion of the verse?
“I will hear in My heavens
and forgive their sins…”
[R.Tabak adds the final words of the verse, not quoted in the midrash: “And I will heal their land.” (v’arapeh et artzam)]
trans:  Danny Siegel, Where Heaven and Earth Touch vol. 3, no.38) 
  
I can’t tell you the ending of the Jonah story.  We have to try to write our own endings, with our life stories, as best we can, with help from one another.

Song:  K’chu imachem d’varim  v’shuvu el-hashem (Hosea 14 – haftarah for Shabbat Shuva)– Take words with you and return to Hashem.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Rabbi Tamara Cohen Rosh Hashanah 2015: The Binding of Isaac and Black Lives Matter


Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5766
Rabbi Tamara Cohen

This Dvar Torah was born a few times over this year.

I think the first place it was born was in the powerful experience of giving birth to a beautiful baby, who among many other things is a white Jewish boy with blond hair and blue eyes in a moment when the Black Lives Matter movement was reaching a new level, in a moment when the stories of parents mourning the deaths of their children of color due to police violence were all around me. We took Kliel to a Hanukkah Black Lives Matter protest for his first outing. He was barely a month old. Why? In part because I wanted to be there and in part because I was struggling with how to allow myself the joy of this new baby knowing that all around America and Philadelphia and even Mt Airy other parents were also celebrating new babies, babies with all different colors of eyes and skin and hair, and that all of us lovestruck parents, wanting to do everything for our children, feeling acutely aware of their vulnerability, also had different relationships to the vulnerability of our kids because of the systemic racism in the America in which these babies were being born.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night to nurse and realizing that this waking in the night was core my current spiritual work. It was a way to teach my baby's little body and deepest self: yes, it's true, there is nothing I won't do to care for you. You are safe in this world and can take root. You are loved and cared for. Each time you cry out, or murmur, or show me your need, I will respond. And then it occurred to me that the difference between my parental instinctual hearing and spiritual instinctual hearing was this: I wanted to be and to raise my children to be, people who wake in the night when they hear not only the cries of their own babies but the cries of every and any baby.  The kind of people who can respond with love and surrender each time they hear a cry of human being in need, even in the dark of night, even when we would rather sleep.

Another moment when this D’var was born was on a phone call with my friend Y. after Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell. Y. was saying something like “What’s going on? What’s going on? This is America.” And there was an urgency in her voice, a terror. I had read a headline or two about the case but I hadn't yet taken the time to read more. I was busy, planned to get to it soon. But something in my friend’s voice, something said to me in a starkness, painful and real, that the difference between being a good white friend and ally and being a black mother in that moment was the difference between my upset at the story and her terror. And I saw it clearly. I saw her daughter, 17, headed to Princeton after graduating as the only black Jewish girl from her yeshiva high school. I saw her suddenly, briefly through her mother’s eyes. I saw the terror of having to release one’s child, one’s black child, to an unknown world, the terror of having to allow one’s baby to drive on a street through Princeton. Anywhere really. And I felt shaken awake in a new way to the difference in my reality and in the reality of my dear friend, both of us Jewish mothers who love our kids and would do anything to protect them, one of us white and one of us black.
            I tasted for a moment the physical terror in her voice. And then I went into my house to have dinner with my family and she went into her house to have dinner with hers. But before we got off the phone I made a promise to her, yes, we would do something, no I wouldn't forget the moment, no I wouldn't let this fear and anger and horror all sit solely on her shoulders.

            The third place this dvar Torah was born was in my reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s amazingly beautiful, powerful and heart-wrenching book Between the World and Me, which I read this summer, thanks to the fact that the GJC Racism group decided it would be a good thing to do together. For those of you who have not yet read this book, and I strongly commend you to read it, what you need to know for now is that the book is written by a black father to his fifteen year old black son. The book tells the story of how Ta-Nehisi, in his words, has made the struggle to live free in his black body in America the central meaning making struggle of his life. He writes about his childhood on the harsh streets of inner city Baltimore, his struggles with school, his period of valorizing and learning from Black Power and Malcom X, his awakenings at Howard University to the deeper complexities of race and racism and blackness, and about becoming parent. He shares the story of the loss of a peer to police violence and of his intense visit with the mother of this murdered son, a professor and dean, who had raised her son in the suburbs, sent him to private schools and given him so much, none of which protected him from being murdered by a police officer in the prime of his life.

            These three experiences led me to feel compelled, if still somewhat anxious about, giving this dvar torah. So here’s the essence of what I want to say:
            For me, this year, the Binding of Isaac is a story different from any other year I have read it. This year it is a story about an Abraham who loves his son but who is so terrified by the realization that he could be taken away from him that he almost kills him himself.
            This year for me, Abraham is a black father. And Isaac is his beloved son. And what happens in the story is that Abraham, through binding his son on the altar, passes on to his son the terrifying truth that his body could be taken from him at any moment.
            Isaac and Abraham are both afraid. Fear is something they live with and know. Indeed fear becomes part of Isaac's name (as Gideon Ephrat points out in a blog post on the use of the phrase Pachad Yitzchak after the Akeida).

            I want to briefly read you a few quotes from Between the World and Me that may help you see how I have arrived at this reading of Akeidat Yitzchak.

Coates writes: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.” He continues, “That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket. It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mothers hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race,” imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods.” - p. 82

            So, what happens when we read these two texts, Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Genesis 22 together? A few things happen.

            One of the most difficult and important things that Ta-Nehisi Coates asks his son and his readers to do is to accept a radically different and more violent narrative of America than the one we generally believe in. He asks us, as does the Black Lives Matter movement more broadly, to recognize that what has gone on this year have not been the acts of some bad cops, but instead a reflection of and carrying out of a policy of systemic racism consistent with the basic tenets of the American Dream in which the of safety and prosperity of people who get to claim the identity of “white” get that through the plunder, ownership, and terrorizing of Black bodies.

            I hear in this two calls to us as a community of primarily white Jews.

            The first is that we recognize how much we have benefited from the process of mostly losing, at least in the United States, the marker of having Jewish bodies, and of being accepted as having white bodies. But we can’t stop there. We must also take the step of deciding to stop believing in the whiteness of our bodies, while still fully acknowledging white privilege, and of no longer acquiescing to the system that gives us advantages because of our supposed whiteness on the backs of those whose skin is black.

            Another equally hard and important move that I invite us to make is for us to be willing to look at the Torah and at Israelite civilization with the same hard scrutiny with which Coates looks at America, and also, through the course of the book, at blackness.

            He writes, "The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own” (p.53) and also, "Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it."

            I think its important for us as Jews to be ready to admit that indeed our beloved Torah is not exempt as a story in which some great power is elevated through the violent exploitation of other human bodies. Despite the power of the Exodus narrative, in the Torah, in the end, Israelites bodies are the chosen bodies. It is the bodies of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan who are plundered and destroyed in order to pave the way for our Dream, for the conquest of the Promised Land. This is a very troubling way to look at the Torah, just as Coates presents us with a very difficult read of America. But the fact that it makes us uncomfortable doesn't make it not true.

            And if we can tell the truth, tell the truth about America, and tell the truth about the Bible, and tell a more whole truth about our changing and evolving position as American Jews in the civil rights struggle, not just about Heschel in Selma, and Andrew Goodman, and the stories we are proud of, we will be moving closer to being able to make necessary radical change.

            Let’s return to Isaac, bound and trembling with the knife raised above him. On the one hand I am seeing him and asking you to see him as an American boy with a black body. I am doing this because black bodies are the bodies in America today that hold the position of Yitzchak, the position of fear, of lack of freedom, of being struck, bound between the promise of a grand and fruitful future and the very real possibility of immanent unexplained and incomprehensible death.

            But at the same time that I want us to hold the image of Yitzchak as a black child, I also want to hold him as every child.

            The binding of Isaac is a story that reveals that actually we all have bodies. And that actually every one of our bodies is vulnerable. Every one of our bodies would cry out "I can't breathe" if it was put into a chokehold and we had asthma. Every one of our bodies would be destroyed if it was bound and driven around in the back of a police van.

            Isaac is our reminder that really race is a construct that creates an unnatural line between those bodies that are vulnerable and destructible and those that are strong and invincible.
            Our narrative does not end with Yishmael cast out and Yitzchak  protected as the chosen one. Yitzchak ends up vulnerable in today’s Torah reading just as Yishmael did in yesterday’s. Isaac's body lies there bound and afraid, just as Yishmael sat in the desert thirsty and in danger of dying. Both of them together remind all us that all of our bodies could be taken from us for reasons we don't understand and will never understand. Each is dependent on an angel shifting their parents vision in order to enable their survival.

            So on the one hand I am saying that some bodies are more vulnerable than others and on the other hand I am saying that all bodies are equally vulnerable. Yes.

            Racism and the American Dream's dependence on it makes it true that black bodies are far more vulnerable in America than white bodies. But this is not an inherent truth. This is the result of a system built to protect and construct white bodies and to control and destroy black bodies, families, and communities.

            When we recognize that whiteness is a construct, that blackness is a construct, that race is a construct, we take one important step. We then need to take another. We need to take the step of saying that we want to exchange of our sense of distance from the reality of the vulnerability of the body for a society in which all bodies are equally vulnerable and equally free.
            We don't yet live in that society. The Torah doesn't live in that reality either. But Isaac's bound body and the rabbis choice to force us to look at it every year is perhaps a way in to that worldview.

            That's where we want to go. To the worldview where the color of Isaac's skin doesn't make him more or less likely to be bound or unbound, where the color of his skin doesn't make him more or less likely to live with a constant underlying sense of fear.

            As Jews we often read this story in a way that focuses us more on the intellectual, spiritual, philosophical questions raised by the Akeida. I have felt compelled this year to stay with the body. With the embodied terror of Isaac and of Abraham. And beyond them of Hagar and Yishmael. And even Sarah.

            I have felt compelled to stay with the deep experience of bodily fear that is not right now equally shared in this country. But which perhaps we can begin to more deeply understand through our bodies than through our minds.

            Racism can only partially be unlearned through the mind. The racist’s fear, the fear that the supposedly white body carries of the black body is also a bodily fear. And so perhaps we can get more to the root of racism if we go to this body place. And perhaps this year that is where Isaac is inviting us to go.
            At least it is where his body invited me to go this year. His body and a mother’s terror, and the crazy sad fact of Sandra Bland's death, and all the lives taken this year because of police violence and the powerful gift of Ta-nehesi Coates’s words to his fifteen year old son — his act of father to son truth telling that somehow calls out to me across time and space as an answer to Abraham's deafening silence during his three day walk with his son.

            Towards the end of the book, Coates addresses his son: ”Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real—when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities—they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact... I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” (pp.107-8)


            May we keep learning, may we keep struggling, may we raise our next generation — all of them, to be conscious citizens of this terrible and beautiful world. May the shofar keep blasting and shaking all of us awake.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Only Connect: Dorshei Derekh Yom Kippur 5776, by Rabbi Dayle Friedman

[As I get settled at the podium, I pick up my phone. I  lower my head and begin to tap and swipe away, looking up occasionally to say: oh, so sorry, I gotta take thisuh, just a secbe right with youoh, rightthe dvar torah!]
Missing the moment
What I just did was a jokebut also NO joke. As I have engaged in חשבון הנפש spiritual accountingduring Elul and these 10 days of repentance, I have felt particular remorsenot for all of the moments in which I missed the mark, ,חטאתי I sinned, but for all of the moments I missed. How many times was I in the car supervising my kids as they learned to drive when I responded to a text, read an article, or grazed over to Facebook? How many times when I was in our room after our 10 p.m. computer curfew, talking to David, but also playing solitaire? How many times was I having a meeting when my phone went off and I reached down just gotta check thiscould be my kids and checked my text messages?
       I doubt very much that I am alone in this experience of engaging with a technological device instead of being fully present in the moment. I will not ask for a show of hands. But I do very much hope that exploring distraction, its causes and costs, can help not just me, but all of us, to retrain our sites on the target from which we have strayedwhat E.M. Forster captured in his memorable phrase: Only connect. If not, while I am talking, feel free to plan your work schedule for tomorrow, or fantasize about your post-fast feast.
      The late Rabbi Alan Lew taught about the importance of staying focused. As he analyzed the rules in Parashat Shoftim about exemptions from the obligation to go to war, he noticed commonalities. The Torah teaches that you cannot be required to go to war if you have:
1)      built a new house and not inhabited it
2)     planted a vineyard but not harvested it; or
3)     are betrothed and have yet not married
Rabbi Lew taught that people in these situations are excluded from obligation because of טירוף הדעתtheir mind is pulled in multiple directions, and hence, cannot fully engage in the life-or-death decisions required in battle.
Their minds are pulled in multiple directions.
      OUR minds are pulled in multiple directions. We might not be engaging in battle, but we are making life-or-death decisions every time we get behind the wheel of a car. And also every time we cross a street.  And it might not be life-or-death decisions, but we are surely losing real connection when we engage in a conversation while operating a phone, computer or iPad.

 Why Are Our Minds Pulled in Multiple Directions?
     The easiest and most immediate answer is that we are not alonewe are constantly in the company of all of these incredibly enticing devices. They offer news (though honestly, how many times a day do we NEED to check the latest headlines?), entertainment (I can listen to edifying podcasts!), and the promise of connection (better check my e-mail, maybe somebody needs me!). And oh, the apps: I even have an app for meditation!
      But beyond the sheer seduction of worlds upon worlds available in the palms of our hands, there is more going on. I notice that I tap, tap, tap my phone when I feel bored, when I feel anxious, when I feel frustrated, or sad, or mad. I can take myself away from the challenge of the moment with a tap or a swipe. I dont have to tolerate difficult emotions.
      And I am an impatient person. I dont like waiting. The other day I was in the doctors office. The nurse asked me to wait while draped with a paper blanket on the examining table for the doctor. Would you be surprised to hear that I grabbed my phone and was looking at my calendar when the doctor entered the room? That was nothing compared to the long and angst-filled waiting in the years of my late sisters illnesswaiting for news of a treatment, waiting for test results, waiting with dread for a phone call. Those moments, sometimes days, sometimes months, of waiting, were agonizing. I felt I couldnt engage fully in what I was doing because I might have to take the call,  or cancel a professional engagement and jump on a plane. Not surprisingly, my Solitaire addiction ratcheted up to an unprecedented level during that period. Just one more gameand another..and anotherthough, to be honest, my angst was not salved in the least.

The Costs of Distraction
     There is a rabbinic teaching that, when we are brought before the Throne of Glory for our ultimate judgment, we will be called to account for every lovely flowering tree that we failed to notice and enjoy. So easy to do, when we are caught up in thoughts, or conversation.
      The rabbis were talking about the sin of missing the moment. Imagine if we were called to account for every sight, smell, or sound we missed as we were plugged in to our phones or other devices.  Even more terrifying: imagine we were called to account for every emotional connection we missed when we were multitasking when we should have actually been thereour attention drawn elsewhere when we should have been listening, looking, and feeling what the other was communicating!
      In I and Thou, Martin Buber posited that there are two fundamental and very different ways in which humans can relate, I-It, and I-Thou. In an I-it relationship, we are relating to the other, whether the other is a person, a tree, or an animal, as an object. We are interested in the utility we can find in that other. In an I-Thou relationship, we are encountering the other with our full being, without agenda. When we meet the other as a Thou, by which Buber meant the most intimate, familiar YOU, we are truly alive, we are truly present in the present moment. In this kind of genuine relating, we become fully human. Even more than that, says Buber:  When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.  We experience Gods presence precisely in the moments of I-Thou encounter.
      When we attempt to be with another AND check our email, we are involved in an I-it relationship.
      When we go out for a meal and leave our phones out on the table because we are expecting an important call, we are making an IT out of the person across from us.
      When we sit on a conference call while reading the news on our computer, we are objectifying each and every person with whom we are supposedly in conversation.
      More than that, though, we are making an IT out of ourselves, robbing ourselves of our deepest humanity.
      When someone tells you they are multitasking, they are not. They are I-itting.
      We have forgotten Bubers precious teaching: all real living is meeting.
     How shall we live our days in the year ahead? Surely not in continuous I-Thou encounterswe might be attracted to that, but no one can live at that level of intensitywe would never pay our bills or get our laundry donethough perhaps we could grow to be more present even amid those mundane tasks.

The Promise/possibility
     I want to offer you a teaching from my favorite rebbe, Shalom Noach Berezhovsky, the Slonimer, as a vision and promise for us.
The Slonimer Rebbe holds Avraham Avinu up as an example of presence and mindfulness. At the end of his life, it is written of Avraham,
 אברהם זקן בא בימים וה׳ ברך את אברהם בכל
Abraham was old, had entered his days (come of age), and God blessed Abraham in everything. The Slonimer asks: why do we need to learn that Abraham was come of age if we already knew he was old? He answers: each of us is given a portion of Torah at birth, and each day, a small piece of that portion is revealed to us. In addition, each of us has a task a tikkun/repair that is ours alone to do. One persons task cannot be done by another, and one days task cannot be completed at another time. What was it that the Torah wants to teach us in telling us that Avraham ba bayamim?
      Abraham came into his dayshe inhabited each and every day of his life. He learned something new, and he performed some act that healed or aided the world daily. Maybe one day he apologized to Isaac for the trauma of the Akedah. Maybe he found new neighbors with whom to make a covenant of peace. But perhaps his acts of tikkun/repair were not always so dramaticperhaps one day, he gave a friendly greeting to a lonely soul; maybe on another day, he listened really well to Keturah, the wife of his old age.
      Because he truly was present to the moment-by-moment learning and healing of each day, each of Avrahams days was full, and rich until he died at age 175. God truly blessed Abraham in everything.
     May we come into our days in the year ahead.
     May we experience the wonder of doing just one thing at a time.
     May we feel the power of paying our full attention to the person we are with, whether at work, at home or at shul.
     May we pry the phones, or mice, or tablets from our hands and learn to be with our own experience.
     May we meet many Thous, and may we discover the exaltation of being an I.
     May we experience the electricity of Gods presence surging through and between us and those we truly meet.
     May we come into our days in the year ahead.
     May God bless us in everything.
     Ken yehi ratzon.
 Sources
Sholom Noach Berezovsky, Netivot Shalom on Hayyei Sarah.
Martin Buber. I and Thou. Martino Fine Books. 2010 (reprint of 1937 edition).

Alan Lew. This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. Little, Brown and Co. 2003.